It's not true that HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson learned everything he needed to know about government from fighting forest fires in Northern California as a college student.
But he admits it helped.
"We were up 10,000 feet and there was no water," Levinson remembers. "You had to rely on your shovel. When there was a downturn, you sharpened the edges of your shovel so it could cut through the brush more easily. You had to cut a wide enough swath to deprive the coming fire of fuel. We were close to the action."
Levinson says fighting forest fires in 1972 with little or no access to water honed certain critical-thinking skills that tested his ability to improvise. "Maybe that experience prepared me for working in government," Levinson chuckles, only half-serious.
But Levinson, 56, brought more than firefighting skills when President Bush nominated him last year to serve as inspector general for the nation's largest federal department. The lawyer the Senate confirmed in June boasts a long resume of distinguished government service: deputy general counsel for the Office of Personnel Management; general counsel for the Consumer Product Safety Commission; chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board during the Reagan administration and George H.W. Bush's term; chief of staff for a powerful congressman during the Clinton years; and a stint as inspector general of the General Services Administration during President George W. Bush's first term.
But, Levinson, who had only limited experience safeguarding healthcare programs, had his work cut out for him at HHS. That agency and its 300 programs hadn't had a permanent inspector general since Janet Rehnquist left under fire in June 2003.
During her stormy two-year reign, Rehnquist oversaw the firing, reassignment or retirement of more than 20 key senior managers. Poor morale and instability plagued the agency over the next few years. Dara Corrigan, a high-ranking CMS official, was named acting principal deputy inspector general to oversee the agency for one year, but Bush never named her to the post permanently, rendering her unable to make key budget and personnel decisions. Still, Corrigan is credited with stanching the agency's bleeding, making Levinson's transition a little smoother.
Those who know Levinson weren't surprised by his appointment. Friends, former bosses and colleagues lavish compliments on the balding, bespectacled official whose looks and serious demeanor would typecast him as "government bureaucrat" in a Hollywood cattle call. They describe him as reliable, unflappable and highly adaptable.
Indeed, consistency and persistence have defined the Brooklyn native who took up swimming and the viola as a child and who continues to swim for exercise and practice the viola, occasionally still performing with orchestras. With these activities, the former New York All-City High School Orchestra performer learned the power of discipline.
Longtime interest in policy
"I did have a strong interest in government and policy work early on," acknowledges Levinson, whose father was a corporate executive lawyer and whose mother was a college professor, author and social worker. Levinson says he didn't leave his hometown until he was 19 and headed for college at the University of Southern California.
While at USC pledging the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity in the late-'60s, Levinson met his longtime friend and future boss, former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.).
Barr says that Levinson outwardly hasn't changed much since his college days. "He can still fit into the same suits," chuckles Barr, now in a private legal and consulting practice in Atlanta and a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It oughta be illegal."
Levinson excelled academically at USC, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Barr says that Levinson remains much like the man he was then: loyal, thoughtful and intellectually gifted with a wry sense of humor.
"He was a year behind me, but I always looked up to him as someone smarter who knew a lot more," Barr says. "He was an excellent student and even then an authority on U.S. and Civil War history. He didn't have that heavy load of responsibility as a student, so he was freer with jokes. Still, he had this serious side. I was his big brother at the fraternity, but it was a sort of role reversal."
Barr says he and Levinson stayed close in the years after graduation. "And when I ran for Congress, he counseled me and ran my congressional offices as chief of staff," Barr says. "I couldn't think of anyone who could have done a better job. We knew each other well and trusted each other implicitly. Dan could have made huge sums of money in the private sector. Heading my office was a wonderful sacrifice on his part, something very rare to find in Washington."
He characterized his old friend as "extremely methodical, absolutely loyal and honest and extremely hardworking."
"He also has something I don't have: a real ability to very quietly work with people who hold different viewpoints calmly without letting emotions boil over," Barr says. "He doesn't shy away from controversy but approaches people in a calm and collected way."
Barr also says Levinson has a strong sense of family. "That's very important to him," he says.
Levinson concurs. He's been married for 25 years to Luna Levinson, whom he met in graduate school at George Washington University and who now oversees grant programs at the U.S. Education Department. They are the parents of two daughters -- one in college and the other in high school.
"If we're lucky we can catch them for dinner," he bemoans. "They're busy, overscheduled young women. We can't even come up with a week to go to the beach for vacation. But they're wonderful girls. I can't complain."
Joseph Morris, Levinson's former boss at the Office of Personnel Management, says the young attorney arrived at OPM with extensive experience in employment and labor relations law, the civil service system and had acquired a solid reputation as a smart lawyer with good instincts.
"Dan has the ability to cut through the chaff of complex fact patterns to the core of a legal issue," Morris says. "He was a great No. 2 and makes a great inspector general because he's not interested in headlines or becoming a candidate for public office. He's interested in the law and making government work better."
Morris says Levinson is "self-effacing, very good at motivating staff and keeping track of important projects. He's had a chance to explore the pathology of government problems and work with many different bureaucracies ... to work out problems. Dan is admirably suited for this job."
He says Levinson's personal characteristics are well-suited for the job.
"He has the right temperament, a cool, calm personality, highly rational and very ethical, with a discerning eye for detail and a mission-oriented fidelity," Morris says. "If I needed somebody to serve as a trustee for my wife or loved one, Dan is as straight of a shooter as I could find."
Levinson is a well-respected legal scholar as well who edited the American Criminal Law Review and remains editor in chief of the Journal of Public Inquiry, a journal written mostly by and for government inspectors general on issues of ethics and government improvement published by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. He is also the only HHS inspector general to date who is a certified fraud examiner, which denotes expertise in the prevention, detection and investigation of fraud.
While Levinson has a long track record of government service and some experience with the laws regulating healthcare, his contact with the healthcare industry has been limited and he remains relatively unknown by healthcare providers, their associations and lawyers. His public statements and interviews have been rare. Hospital executives and legal counsel are still not sure who Levinson is or what his agency's mandates will be.
Peter Liebold, president of the American Health Lawyers Association, says his members eagerly follow the words and actions of America's biggest healthcare fraud-fighting agency. Liebold says Levinson addressed the AHLA and the Health Care Compliance Association in September.
`Tough on enforcement'
"He seemed very open and willing to engage in dialogue, which is important to healthcare lawyers and compliance officers who have to live and operate within healthcare laws," Liebold says. "Listening to Inspector General Levinson you get the impression that he's going to be tough on enforcement, but will seek to engage the healthcare community so he knows the challenges we're facing. But when he feels a line has been crossed, though, he will intervene."
American Hospital Association spokesman Richard Wade says Levinson's office has not focused much yet on issues surrounding hospitals and healthcare systems, but currently seems to have pharmaceuticals in its regulatory sights.
"He's clearly an inspector general who takes public service seriously," Wade says, acknowledging that the AHA has fought with HHS' inspector general's office in the past, most notably in 1996, when it sued the office to challenge its use of the federal False Claims Act to prosecute hospitals and other providers. "But we will work with the inspector general on terms purely in the public interest."
Levinson says he thinks that the White House approached him for the inspector general's job because of his long history of government agency management.
"There was an interest in appointing a standing inspector general," Levinson says. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, had advised Bush to appoint a seasoned inspector general after the departure of the controversial and untested Rehnquist, with whom he clashed.
Levinson concedes that HHS has presented some challenges.
"I knew I'd need to engage in a learning curve here, but I was not at a complete loss either. Healthcare wasn't foreign to me. I'd worked with the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, with the federal pension and health benefits laws. And as a result of the lengthy confirmation process, I've had a fair amount of time to be better anchored before being officially confirmed. The staff helped greatly."
So far he's winning high marks from Grassley.
"Daniel Levinson took charge of an important office that had been rudderless for too long. He's brought stability and focus to the vital work of this office," Grassley says. "Taxpayers and beneficiaries of the nation's healthcare programs need a bulldog in this position, and I expect just that kind of commitment and performance from Daniel Levinson."
Levinson says in his government career he never dealt with Grassley, though as chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board he oversaw the board's whistle-blower law. That gives him something in common with Grassley, who is considered the father of the modern version of the federal False Claims Act, which has strong whistle-blower protection components.
"The Senate Finance Committee and its House counterpart have important oversight responsibilities for the funds expended through this department (HHS) and I think it's very important for the office of the inspector general to have a constructive relationship with those committees," Levinson says. "As chairman, Senator Grassley plays an important role in that relationship, and I'm looking forward to developing that relationship."
Reaching out to providers
Hospitals and other providers can expect to have frequent contact with Levinson in the coming months. "I have a busy fall schedule of outreach," he says. He says he arrived just as the agency was gearing up for implementation of the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act. The inspector general will have to oversee hundreds of billions of dollars in new money spent on prescription drugs, which he describes as a huge operational and oversight challenge. He says the new responsibilities have been "very much on my mind."
In addition to the MMA, Levinson says the integrity of the Medicaid program, which is partly funded by federal dollars, will be a top agency priority.
"There has been an interest by the administration and Congress to hold the Medicaid program to greater accountability for how its federal share is actually spent," says Levinson, who testified in congressional hearings this summer. "What I'm doing is trying to understand with senior staff how the (agency's) money is accounted for and make sure that job one is to maximize the benefits of the resources given it."
After former Inspector General Rehnquist came under fire for allegedly giving preferential treatment in a settlement case to a Pennsylvania hospital whose congressional delegation lobbied her on its behalf, the agency drew criticism for allegedly allowing politics to sway judgment. But Levinson denies that the Bush administration, campaign contributors or any healthcare provider groups have tried to coerce him to slack off on healthcare fraud enforcement efforts or exerted political pressure on him.
"I've felt absolutely no pressure from anyone," he says. "I've been allowed to do my job independently and objectively and feel very comfortable that will continue."
Birthplace: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Family: Married for 25 years to educator and consultant Luna Levinson, parents of two daughters
Education: B.A., international relations, University of Southern California, 1971; J.D., Georgetown University, 1974,and master's degree in law, George Washington University, 1977
Previous jobs: Deputy general counsel, Office of Personnel Management, 1983-85; general counsel, Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1985-86; chairman, Merit Systems Protection Board, 1986-93; chief of staff, U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), 1995-98; inspector general, General Services Administration, 2001-04.
Levinson also worked as a mailman in 1968; as an auditor for Johnson and Atwater during college, 1969-70; a forestry firefighter in 1972; clerked for a New York state appellate court judge 1974-76; and worked as a lawyer in the Washington law firm of McGuiness & Williams, 1977-83.