Altman leaving Health Policy Commission

Retired health care executive Devaux taking chair position

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Wednesday appointed retired health care executive Deborah Devaux as chair of the Health Policy Commission, replacing Stuart Altman, who has chaired the agency since its creation 10 years ago.

Devaux retired recently after more than three years as executive vice president of Beth Israel Lahey Health. Prior to that position, she served 18 ½ years as chief operating officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

A spokesman at the Health Policy Commission referred questions about the appointment to Baker’s press office. Officials there didn’t respond to requests for information about Devaux, the length of her appointment, or why Altman wasn’t left in the post until the end of the governor’s term in January

Altman, 85, a professor at Brandeis University, announced his departure at the start of a virtual meeting of the commission. He thanked Baker for previously extending his term beyond the official ending date but said he is now ready to leave.

“It’s time and I need to step down,” he said. “I do that with such a sense of accomplishment.”

Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services, who has served on the commission since it was launched, said she and Baker were grateful to Altman for leading the agency for the last 10 years. “You implemented the vision of the law,” she said.

The Legislature launched the Health Policy Commission in 2012 as part of an effort to rein in the rising cost of health care in Massachusetts. The commission was given limited powers but gained stature over time for its analysis of cost pressures in the health care industry, including mergers and other business activities that could drive up prices.

The commission’s primary tool for controlling health care costs is a cost growth benchmark, a limit on how much health care expenditures could grow each year. There was no penalty for exceeding the benchmark, although the commission did have the authority to require hospital systems that exceeded the benchmark to adopt so-called performance improvement plans to bring costs under control.

In the initial years of the commission, Massachusetts repeatedly came in below the benchmark. Other states took notice, and seven, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, Delaware, New Jersey, Oregon, and California, adopted similar benchmarks.

More recently, health care costs in Massachusetts have begun to exceed the benchmark. The commission earlier this year required Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest hospital system, to develop a performance improvement plan, which is currently being reviewed by the commission.

Commission members increasingly feel they need more power to deal with rising health care costs. Several of the other states that have adopted cost benchmarks have given their agencies the power to levy fines or other financial penalties on providers whose costs are rising too fast.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the commission reviewed past recommendations to the Legislature seeking the power to assess financial penalties for above-benchmark spending or to establish price caps for high-priced providers. The Legislature has taken no action on those requests, and some commission members suggested it might be time to adopt different approaches.

Altman was an active participant in the discussion. He has been a major force in Massachusetts health care debates, a well-spoken academic with decades of experience in the classroom who also draws upon a vast array of hands-on practical experience.

He implemented health care price controls for Richard Nixon in the 1970s, helped reform the Medicare payment system in the 1980s and early 1990s, and was appointed by Bill Clinton to a commission focused on the future of Medicare in 1997.

Former governor Deval Patrick named him the inaugural chair of the Health Policy Commission in 2012 and Baker kept him in that position through his entire time in office until Wednesday, his last day on the job.