A fanatic about health

March 26, 1995|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,Sun Staff Writer

On one of his first days as Maryland's health secretary, Dr. Martin P. Wasserman called his staff to a series of meetings. They began at 8:30 a.m. and didn't end until 11 p.m.

Such long hours have become routine for Dr. Wasserman, who took office in late December.

At 52, he works six days a week, sleeps five hours a night and swims two miles each morning. Most people still are asleep when he feeds his four horses and cleans their stalls. And just as he cooks too much lasagna for his family, he has thrown himself full force into his new position.

He oversees 9,060 workers and a $3.2 billion budget -- the largest of all state department budgets -- at a time when health care is undergoing a revolution and medical costs for the poor are exploding.

Dr. Wasserman, a lawyer as well as a physician, is a fierce tobacco opponent who organized a statewide anti-smoking coalition in 1993. When he received word one Friday afternoon that an appeals court had decided to let Maryland's tough workplace smoking ban take effect, he was ecstatic.

Dr. Wasserman didn't hesitate that weekend to voice strong public support for the ban -- even before his boss, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, announced what he would do. The ban is due to take effect tomorrow at the close of the business day.

A Connecticut native, Dr. Wasserman graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1968. He and his wife, Barbara, also a physician, worked on the Navajo Reservation, where he directed pediatric care. Back in Baltimore, he worked as medical director of Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital and studied law at night, earning his degree in three years.

From 1978 until his recent appointment, he oversaw health departments in Arlington, Va., and Maryland's two largest counties, Montgomery and Prince George's. He also headed state and national public health associations, bringing together warring sides and individualists so deftly that colleagues call Dr. Wasserman a great "cat herder."

"I used to get morally outraged," he said. "Now I get morally outraged at people who get morally outraged. You try to be rational. You try to move people towards the center, with social good as the center."

Recently Dr. Wasserman set out to use his consensus-building skills to mediate a dispute between Maryland optometrists and ophthalmologists. They had long feuded about how much primary eye care the lesser-trained optometrists should be allowed to do.

It was 6 p.m. Everyone had already worked a full day. But according to participants, Dr. Wasserman immediately set the tone: "We are going to stay here until we get it done."

In 15 years, rarely had the two sides tried to negotiate differences on a bill. At a second session, with the help of three pizzas bought by Dr. Wasserman, they worked until 12:45 a.m. A compromise is making its way through the legislature.

Dr. Wasserman, widely considered one of the country's top public health experts, is frequently tapped for advice by officials at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He's also known for getting things done.

When few obstetricians in Montgomery County would care for poor pregnant women, Dr. Wasserman turned the situation around by getting the county to cover the physicians' liability insurance for those cases. Within a month after he took over as Prince George's health officer in 1991, workers at a rural clinic were shocked when Dr. Wasserman walked in the door.

"He drove all the way down here to see the place. He was out of his office and so full of energy that we all had to take a step back," said Karla Roskos, executive director of Greater Baden Medical Services.

Working with health maintenance organizations, hospitals, AIDS advocates and others, Dr. Wasserman helped establish a county clinic in an under-served area.

In Dr. Wasserman's first few months as health secretary, going to work often has meant heading to Annapolis for the legislative session.

During early mornings and late nights in the "Bunker" -- a basement that serves as the crowded headquarters for the health department staff -- aides schooled Dr. Wasserman in the details of dozens of bills. And in the hallways of the State House, lobbyists, advocates, and others swarmed him.

"We feel he was the best selection who could be made," said Brian Scott, director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic of Suburban Maryland and president of the Suburban Maryland HIV Alliance. Despite Dr. Wasserman's stance in Prince George's County that AIDS patients be reported by name in order to track them better -- a recommendation opposed by many in the AIDS community -- Mr. Scott said they have agreed to disagree.

Even with Dr. Wasserman's experience and broad support, his $108,372-a-year job is formidable.

The private health market is in upheaval. Increasingly powerful HMOs, which already cover at least 30 percent of insured Marylanders, are trying to cut costs. And according to the latest figures, roughly 115,000 more state residents lost their health insurance in 1993.

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