Maryland health secretary resigns

Legislators criticized Wasserman for poor oversight of programs

April 09, 1999|By Jonathan Bor and C. Fraser Smith | Jonathan Bor and C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Martin P. Wasserman resigned yesterday, apparently pressured by legislators who criticized him for poor oversight of key health programs.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who announced the resignation at a Cabinet meeting, said Wasserman will lead a new public health effort to combat smoking. Wasserman, in office for four years, will leave at the end of the month and be succeeded by Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, a deputy health secretary.

"We did accept Marty Wasserman's resignation this morning," Glendening said. "He's done a great job as a public health advocate."

Asked if Wasserman had been forced out, he said: "He has been an advocate for so many years. He has a national reputation. He's a personal friend as well."

The resignation occurs shortly after the U.S. General Accounting Office criticized the health department for failing to respond promptly to complaints of poor care in nursing homes. Legislators were clearly angered by the GAO findings. So was Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who wrote a letter to House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. expressing concerns about Wasserman's oversight of nursing homes.

Legislators also have been dissatisfied with overpayments to health maintenance organizations that care for hundreds of thousands of Medicaid patients. Wasserman acknowledged that the department overpaid the HMOs $44 million because it miscalculated health needs of the Medicaid population.

To recoup some money, a joint committee approved a 2.3 percent cut last week in the payments.

Some committee chairmen regarded Wasserman as arrogant and unresponsive to concerns. "He was too entrenched in his position," said a top Democratic Assembly leader, requesting anonymity. "He had no flexibility."

Last year, Wasserman's agency got caught up in the ethics and criminal investigation of state Sen. Larry Young. The West Baltimore Democrat was expelled from the Senate and indicted on bribery and extortion charges.

Young is accused of shaking down the PrimeHealth health maintenance organization in exchange for his help in getting a state contract. Records showed that Young met three times with officials in Wasserman's office to insist that PrimeHealth be included in a managed care program.

Wasserman, 57, denied being pushed out, noting "job burnout" and a desire to devote energies to the fight against tobacco.

Wasserman, a fitness fanatic who swims two miles daily, holds degrees in medicine, law and public health. He was chief health officer of three counties -- Arlington in Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George's in Maryland -- before appointed health secretary.

Wasserman said he hopes to run a program that will be financed by money coming from the national tobacco settlement. He said his work might be based at a university in the region, but plans are incomplete. Under the tobacco settlement, the state will receive $4.4 billion over 25 years.

"The resources should be fairly substantial," Wasserman said. "We're going to battle tobacco, whether that means reducing teen smoking, doing education, working with the farmers, tobacco cessation or whatever else."

Taylor applauded the decision to put Wasserman in charge of an anti-smoking effort. "I think the new position is a great fit for someone who has devoted himself to public health advocacy," he said.

Benjamin was Washington health commissioner for two years before leaving to practice emergency medicine at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. He headed Washington's emergency medical system before leaving in May 1995 to become deputy Maryland health secretary.

He will oversee a department with a $3.5 million budget and 10,000 employees. It administers the Medicaid managed care program and a medical assistance program for children of working poor. It also oversees services to people with AIDS, mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Sun staff writers M. William Salganik and Walter F. Roche Jr. contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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