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John Colmers to lead rate commission

John M. Colmers, who has served Maryland in a variety of high-profile health care positions, was named Tuesday as the chairman of the Health Services Cost Review Commission.

Colmers, vice president of health care transformation and strategic planning for Johns Hopkins Medicine, will replace Frederick W. Puddester, who stepped down on June 1 from the agency that regulates the prices charged at Maryland’s hospitals.

Colmers was executive director of the HSCRC from 1987 to 1994 and secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene from January 2007 to January 2011. In those jobs, and other government positions, he gained the experience necessary to tackle the complex challenges presently facing the health care industry, experts said.

“Someone like John Colmers, particularly given his involvement and leadership of the HSCRC previously, … he is uniquely equipped to chair the HSCRC at this particular moment, as Maryland is in the midst of health care reform,” said Kevin Lindamood, vice president of external affairs at Health Care for the Homeless, an agency that delivers care to thousands of homeless Marylanders.

In addition to Colmers, Gov Martin O’Malley filled three other vacancies on the HSCRC board, appointing Dr. Bernadette C. Loftus, associate executive director of the Permanente Medical Group; Thomas R. Mullen, president and CEO of Mercy Health Services and Mercy Medical Center; and Jack C. Keane, a health care consultant who has served on price-setting commissions in Maryland and Massachusetts.

“I thank these experts for their willingness to serve,” O’Malley said in a statement. “Innovation in hospital payment overseen by the Health Services Cost Review Commission will help Maryland control costs and improve health outcomes.”

Colmers said he hopes to draw upon the many perspectives he was exposed to throughout his career and focus on the practical implications of the commission’s actions. He said he will try to ensure there is transparency and accountability within the commission and encourage his colleagues to focus on value rather than just volume of care.

The appointments are particularly important given that the commission’s high turnover comes at a crucial time for health care in Maryland, Lindamood said, adding that he anticipates Colmers will be able to effectively lead the fresh crop of people.

Vice Chairman Kevin J. Sexton and C. James Lowthers have reached the end of their four-year terms as commissioners, and last week, Executive Director Robert Murray announced he would step down. Murray’s resignation, effective July 22, came on the heels of Puddester’s announcement. Murray’s replacement has not been named.

“I believe that it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable,” Colmers said of his leadership style. “As chair, I want to encourage fellow commissioners to have their views heard. And for those who are before the commission to know that they will be listened to — not always agreed with, but listened to.”

Lindamood said he expects Colmers to be receptive to the needs of the entire state health care system, from patients to providers. He said Colmers can keep those concerns in mind even as Maryland enters a new era of health care with substantial changes in the coming years.

“In 2014, for the first time low-income adults, regardless of disability, will be eligible for Medicaid,” Lindamood said. “This could transform access to care for vulnerable people in the state and could, in the mid- and certainly in the long term, reduce the cost of hospitalization and emergency room visits, because people will have access to primary care earlier.”

Colmers acknowledges the connection between keeping costs low and ensuring care to vulnerable people, Lindamood said, a mindset that will allow the commission to focus on the quality of care without forgetting the financial aspect.

Commissioners are volunteers appointed by the governor who serve up to two terms and come from an assortment of health care-sector positions.