Jindal picks Levine as health secretary

Published 10:34 pm Tuesday, January 8, 2008

BATON ROUGE (AP) — A health secretary under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will lead Louisiana’s health care department under Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal, managing a multibillion dollar agency that accounts for a quarter of all state spending, Jindal announced Tuesday.

Alan Levine will oversee more than 12,000 employees and a $7.7 billion budget as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and will be instrumental in determining the course of rebuilding the shattered health care system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Levine, 40, of Tallahassee, Fla., is currently president and CEO of Broward Health, a large public health care system in south Florida. By moving to Louisiana’s health department, Levine takes the helm at an agency that Jindal once led and on which the new governor is expected to keep close tabs because of his background in health care policy at the state and federal level.

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Jindal said his staff recruited Levine, who was on hand for the announcement, because of his experience and background in private, public and government health care systems.

‘‘When we talked to people about health care policy across the country, over and over we kept hearing about Alan Levine,’’ Jindal said.

The announcement Tuesday filled the remaining spot in Jindal’s cabinet. The governor-elect previously had announced his picks to head other state agencies, including homeland security, corrections, natural resources and social services.

Among Levine’s largest responsibilities will be managing Louisiana’s multibillion dollar Medicaid program that provides health care to the poor, elderly and disabled. He inherits the health care leadership job in a state with some of the nation’s worst health statistics.

A report issued by the nonprofit United Health Foundation last year ranked Louisiana 49th in the nation for health. Louisiana ranks among the worst states for risk of heart disease, premature death rate, infant mortality, cancer death rate, percent of children in poverty and the rate of uninsured. More than 21 percent of Louisiana’s residents are uninsured.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita worsened the problems, shutting down clinics, hospitals and nursing homes and stretching the remaining open facilities to their breaking points.

‘‘In most measures, Louisiana is at or near the bottom,’’ Levine said.

Levine also walks into the midst of a dispute between Republicans and Democrats and between private hospitals and the LSU-run public hospital system — known as the charity hospital system — about the size and shape that a new public hospital in New Orleans should take. Katrina flooded one of the previous public hospitals in the city, and LSU is planning to build a new one. But officials disagree about how large it should be.

Levine said it’s too soon for him to stake out a position on the role of the LSU public hospital system in Louisiana’s health care network.

As president of Broward Health, Levine oversees the fifth largest public health care system in the country. Before that, he served as secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration from 2004 to 2006, overseeing that state’s $16 billion Medicaid program and a sweeping overhaul of the program that shifted many recipients into private managed care.

He led Florida’s health care response to eight hurricanes and worked as deputy chief of staff and senior health policy adviser for Bush before becoming Florida’s health secretary. From 2000 to 2003, he was chief executive officer of South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center, Fla., and before that, he worked at a series of Florida hospitals.

John Matessino, president of the Louisiana Hospital Association, said Jindal was wise to pick someone from outside Louisiana to lead the health department, with both practical and policy experience.

‘‘He brings a fresh set of eyes to the table,’’ said Matessino, who added that he met Levine on Tuesday morning.

Among his priorities, Levine said he intends to review the state’s emergency safety plan and correct weaknesses, beef up the focus on electronic medical records and determine whether stronger Medicaid fraud provisions are needed in the state.

He said he wants to find ways to make Louisiana more attractive to medical professionals, like doctors and nurses, noting that the state has 63 of its 64 parishes designated as having shortages of primary care services.

The state by itself can’t solve the problem of covering all the uninsured, Levine said, calling it a national problem in which states must work together for a solution.

In other health care appointments, Charles Castille will remain undersecretary for DHH, a job in which he has served since 1998, that mainly involves overseeing the finances of the agency. Castille started with the department in 1975 as a staff attorney.

Sybil Richard, a New Orleans native, will become deputy secretary of the department, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the agency. Richard has worked as assistant deputy secretary for Medicaid operations at Florida’s health department since 2005.