Health Policy Center’s New Director Builds Bipartisan Bridges

Posted: May 2, 2011 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: May 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm

By Jason Jacks

Len Nichols, a health care economist, was named director of the College of Health and Human Services’ Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics. Photo by Evan Cantwell

In 1996, Len Nichols was fresh off a stint working for the Clinton administration and fully ensconced in the health care reform battle being waged daily in the marble halls of Washington, D.C.

Young, educated, and energetic for change, Nichols was—and still is—a trusted advisor on the topic. So much was Nichols’s expertise in demand that none other than the Lion of the Senate himself, Ted Kennedy, summoned Nichols to his office one afternoon to help him wade through the weighty topic.

A two-hour meeting with Kennedy led to two weeks of working together, which then led, in part, to the creation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, bipartisan legislation that, among other things, protected health coverage for people between jobs.

“I was helping him see that a Republican idea, under certain conditions, ain’t so bad,” he says of one sticking point, accentuating the drawl he acquired growing up in Arkansas. “It was the first post-Clinton-[health]-reform bipartisan bill passed by Congress, and I’m pretty proud of that.”

Equally comfortable in front of a senator, a news camera, or a classroom, Nichols has spent much of his career building bridges over the political gorge dug by health care reform. And while Nichols is still trying to engineer a consensus on the hotly debated topic, he’s now doing so from George Mason University.

CHPRE Gets a New Director

In spring 2010, Nichols, a health care economist, was named director of the College of Health and Human Services’ Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics (CHPRE), a position that had been vacant for two years because of budget constraints.

Originally founded by Hazel Johnson-Brown in 1989 as the Center for Health Policy, CHPRE strives to keep the public and policymakers abreast of issues and research related to health care. The center’s current priorities include aging, chronic illness, long-term care, the health workforce, health inequalities, and responsible conduct of research.

One of the goals of having Nichols as director, according to P. J. Maddox, chair of Mason’s Department of Health Administration and Policy, was to expand CHPRE’s reputation beyond the confines of Mason.

“He brings new vision and new energy,” Maddox says. “He really is a nationally known thought leader on health care policy.”

Tucked in a windowless corner of Robinson Hall on the Fairfax Campus, Nichols’s office was still bare of photos or art six months after coming onboard, a minimalistic aesthetic he blames mostly on his first two goals as director: raise money and raise awareness for CHPRE. “When I came, it was basically a laptop and a phone,” he recalls.

From the get-go, Nichols says, his role has been to use his name recognition to make CHPRE a more active participant at the state and federal levels in health care policy discussions. He is already assisting officials in Richmond, Virginia, to decipher the implications of health care reform on the commonwealth. Other future projects include identifying communities willing to form public and private partnerships to improve health care locally and tracking how the new health care reform bill affects citizen health.

Tapping into the wealth of knowledge around him, Nichols also began speaking with others at Mason, including those in the areas of management and engineering and information technology, about using their expertise at CHPRE.

“What the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics is about is connecting parts of Mason to the outside world and the outside world to Mason,” Nichols explains. “I hope to become the conduit through which health policy conversations, health policy research, and ethical discussions flow through in a two-way street.”

“Don’t Let Them Make You Political”

Health care policy is a career he didn’t choose, Nichols says, but one he fell into.

He studied economics at the undergraduate level in Arkansas, before earning master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Illinois. In 1980, he became an economics professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where he wrote extensively on the cost of health care.

Health policy students meet with Capitol Hill staffers. Photo courtesy of Laura Sikes.

In the early 1990s, word of Nichols’s work made its way to officials in Washington, who were also enamored with the fact that he was from the same state as Clinton. With health care reform a priority for the new administration, Nichols was brought on as a senior health policy advisor within the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) soon after Clinton took office.

“The best advice I got at OMB was ‘don’t let them make you political,’” he recalls.

From there, Nichols didn’t move far, remaining in Washington, D.C., to work as an analyst for the Urban Institute. But he struggled to a gain a wider audience for his research because of his employer’s perceived liberal leaning, so he moved to the Center for Studying Health System Change before eventually landing at the nonpartisan New America Foundation (NAF), where he became health policy program director.

“Len was a huge asset at New America,” says Troy Schneider, communications director at NAF. “He’s one of those rare people who can get both Democrat and Republican sides talking about health care reform.”

While at NAF, Nichols continued his work to expand health coverage to more Americans. One of his proudest moments there was the founding in 2008 of Health CEOs for Health Reform, which, as the name implies, is a coalition of medical executives dedicated to improving health care and making it more affordable.

“You can’t solve big problems unless you solve them in a bipartisan way,” Nichols says. “So [NAF] was completely committed to that, which is why it was a perfect home for me.”

Did Health Care Reform Go Far Enough?

When he was at NAF, lawmakers and the media, including CNN and the New York Times, often called on Nichols for his insight into the Democrats’ latest health care reform package. And while he praises the landmark $1 trillion legislation passed in

2010 for committing the country to providing health care to all Americans, he thinks it still falls short financially.

For instance, an additional $200 billion, he explains, should have been included for college loan forgiveness for primary care nurses and doctors, an omission he blames on the bill not having bipartisan backing.

“The fact that we couldn’t achieve that [bipartisan support] this time was a true tragedy,” says Nichols, who testified in Congress four times during the contentious debate. “In my opinion, that wouldn’t have happened if Kennedy [were still alive].”

With millions of Americans still struggling to find affordable coverage, Nichols says health care reform should be championed on both sides of the political aisle.

“A crying child in pain is not a partisan sound,” he says. “The fear of a family trying to pay for a breadwinner’s necessary operation is not a partisan emotion….This is truly a shared responsibility.”

For more information about the Center’s projects, including the 19th Annual Washington Health Policy Institute being held this June, visit the website.

This article originally appeared in the 2011 edition of the College of Health and Human Services annual magazine Dimensions.

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