BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | AIDS and gay groups are praising the appointment of Dennis P. Whalen to be deputy secretary for health in the administration of Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer and the nomination by Spitzer of David A. Hansell to be the state's commissioner of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA).
“I think that both of them have extensive experience on HIV and AIDS issues,” said Michael Kink, legislative counsel at Housing Works, an AIDS services group. “Both of them have gone to bat for our community in governmental positions and both of them have a clear personal picture of how important good policies and adequate funding are to the fight against AIDS. I think both of them also recognize the human damage that can result from bad policies.”
Whalen, who has been the executive deputy commissioner in the state health department since 1996, with a brief stint as acting state health commissioner, will oversee a range of health policies in his new role. Advocates described Whalen as the “chief operating officer” and “a pillar of strength” in the department.
“Dennis Whalen is very exciting because Dennis has been the brains of the health department,” said Jay Laudato, executive director of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, a gay clinic in Chelsea. “He has been the behind the scenes man… With his move into the governor's office he'll be directing the [state commissioner of health] with a wealth of knowledge and an ability to get things done.”
A major issue confronting Spitzer will be controlling Medicaid costs. In the current fiscal year, $45 billion of the state's $114 billion budget will go toward that state-run health plan for the poor and disabled. New York spends more on Medicaid than any other state though it has slowed the growth of its spending in recent years.
Roughly four million New Yorkers, including an estimated 65,000 people with AIDS, rely on Medicaid to pay for their healthcare. A number of AIDS and gay groups receive a portion, in some cases a significant portion, of their annual budgets by supplying Medicaid-funded services to their clients.
Spitzer has promised to control Medicaid costs with steps that include closing hospitals. Selecting Whalen suggests that Spitzer wants someone to direct those changes who is knowledgeable and known by the affected communities.
“I think on healthcare it's clear that Spitzer wants to make some changes,” Kink said. “I think he also recognizes that it is probably smarter to have experienced hands guiding the direction and the details of those changes.”
If approved by the state Senate, Hansell, currently the chief of staff in the city's Human Resources Administration (HRA), will oversee the state's public benefit programs such as welfare and food stamps. HRA manages those programs in the city. Some people with AIDS who meet the government's definition of being disabled get Medicaid, rent subsidies, food stamps, and other public benefits.
Since 1997, Hansell has worked for HRA, which includes the city's HIV/AIDS Services Administration, and the city health department in various jobs. Between 1988 and 1994, he held a number of positions at the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC).
Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, GMHC's chief executive officer, praised Hansell's nomination in a statement.
“David Hansell has a long and distinguished career in public service and is a principled advocate for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS,” the statement read. “We commend Governor-elect Spitzer for this outstanding appointment and look forward to working with Commissioner-designee Hansell in this new endeavor.”
The OTDA, which also manages some funds for housing for people with AIDS, recently ran afoul of AIDS groups when it announced significant rent increases for people with AIDS who are living in subsidized housing. Housing Works sued and won an injunction barring those increases, at least until the issue is fully litigated.
Housing Work's Kink said that some OTDA commissioners installed by Republican Governor George E. Pataki often had “strong ideological perspectives” and little experience running public benefit programs. They were mostly interested in cutting beneficiaries from welfare and food stamp programs, he said. Kink welcomed Hansell.
“With Hansell you've got someone with frontline experience,” Kink said. “We haven't really had that… That kind of perspective is something that's needed… I think David Hansell is going to be more knowledgeable than any welfare commissioner we've had.”
Patrick J. McGovern, executive director of Harlem United, an AIDS service group, said that Hansell and Whalen have been “strong internal advocates” for policies favored by AIDS groups in the Pataki, Giuliani, and Bloomberg administrations.
They have also effectively represented the policies of those administrations.
“If you choose to work in government one of the things you need to do is you need to advocate to the best of your abilities and then when decisions get made, you have to support them,” Laudato said.