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Wailin’ Over Whalen

Wailin’ Over Whalen

Departing health care hero Whalen

Last Thursday, Gov. Paterson announced the resignation of State Director of Operations David Whalen. “My plans for the future are to return to the health care sector,” Whalen told the Update. Whalen declined to be more specific about his next step and said that his temporary or permanent successor had not been chosen (although there has been speculation).

Healthcare advocates and colleagues were unanimous in their praise for Whalen, who served not only as a shaper of health policy at the highest level but as an unprecedented government access point for community-based health organizations.

Whalen was instrumental in shepherding the campaign for Medicaid reform begun under former Gov. Spitzer and brought to fruition under Gov. Paterson. “Dennis led the charge to develop and carry out that mission,” said Lara Kassel, coordinator for Medicaid Matters. “Medicaid dollars are spent in a more equitable and efficient way because of him.”

Kassel and others found it difficult to quantify Whalen’s accomplishments after 30 years in government. “It’s hard to convey how valuable he has been. His combination of insight, expertise and experience in health care are unparalleled,” said State Medicaid Director Deborah Bachrach. “You can go to him with any issue and he will remember the history, how we got to where we are, understand the policy and political imperatives of the moment and figure how to put it all together for patients and providers—honestly, it’s true,” Bachrach said.

One accomplishment that can be attributed to Whalen of significance to the AIDS community was the creation of the AIDS Adult Day Health Care system, which allows poor people living with HIV to obtain comprehensive services in one location. “He was involved from the ground floor,” said Michael Kink, the State Senate’s chief policy adviser, who worked with Whalen for many years as a lobbyist for Housing Works. “He understood the strength of the model and facilitated conversations with the federal government and in state government. It was important high-level support for adventurous policy making.”

Frontline training

Before being appointed as Director of State Operations last year, Whalen served as Spitzer’s Deputy Secretary for Health and Human Services. He served in the Department of Health as Executive Deputy Commissioner, Director of the Office of Health Systems Management and Executive Deputy Director of the AIDS Institute.

Throughout his time in Albany, Whalen acted as an unprecedented government portal for even the humblest grassroots health care groups looking to provide services. “His door was always open to anyone. It used to be that small time advocates, grassroots advocates never really had that opportunity,” Kassel said.

One reason for Whalen’s extraordinary openness may have been his formative years at the AIDS Institute when the AIDS epidemic demanded improvisation, new approaches and collaboration with front-line community-based organizations. “It was so fast and furious then,” said Kink. “That was a training ground for the whole scope of health care. It involved prevention, emergency services, poverty and homelessness, primary care, clinic care, everything.”

Kink says Whalen’s savvy was a critical support for the AIDS Institute’s work during the Pataki administration. “The first year or two [of Pataki’s administration] was extreme. Pataki showed his willingness to play politics with race, AIDS, poverty. But over time, officials like Whalen helped Pataki understand that it wasn’t smart to play politics with some of these issues, that lives were at stake. There was an education process and Whalen was an important teacher.”

Whalen’s famously even-keeled temperament helped him survive the Albany roller coaster. Said Bachrach, “I’ve done three state budgets with him, and each was stressful in its own way. Dennis Whalen was always the guiding light. He’s the calm in the storm, almost never loses his cool. His resignation will be a tremendous loss.”

Posted on July 23, 2009 at 11:11 pm