A wonk is someone who is "preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field," according to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. Alan Weil, 43, fits that description but also exhibits a thoughtfulness and political savvy that enable him to reach beyond the nerdiness that often is packaged with that wonk label.
There is no doubt that Weil has all of the pertinent policy-wonk qualifications: As the executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy, or the NASHP, for three years and the former director of the Assessing the New Federalism project at the Urban Institute, he has immersed himself in some of the thorniest healthcare policy questions of modern times. Chief among these is how to expand healthcare coverage at a time when the federal government has been relinquishing more of its responsibilities in this area to the states.
A nationally known Medicaid expert, he is regularly called upon to testify before congressional committees on Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. In March, in testimony prepared for a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee, Weil pleaded with lawmakers to reauthorize SCHIP so states could plan for the future and count on a federal financial commitment.
“Federalism is frustrating,” he said in the written testimony. “It allows for, indeed it celebrates, the diversity of our nation—and it is not orderly. … My overarching message to you is that the tremendous
success and bipartisan popularity of this program is directly tied to its flexible, federal structure. Efforts to remake the program with a different vision run the risk of undermining the federal-state partnership that has allowed it to thrive.”
Weil knows healthcare policy from a state’s perspective. He was chosen as an Up & Comer in 1996 at the age of 32, when he was executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, as well as health policy adviser to then Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. He has a laundry list of published articles to his name, as well as an educational pedigree that includes a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
“He is an uncommonly bright person,” says Sara Rosenbaum, chair of George Washington University’s Health Policy Department and the board chair of the Center for Health Policy Development, the NASHP’s fiduciary parent. “I think it’s that uncommon brightness and ability to see the next thing that makes him such a standout.”
The NASHP, which is based in Portland, Maine, opened a Washington office and expanded its staff by about 50% under Weil’s leadership, in part thanks to the many grants he has been able to win for the organization, Rosenbaum says. The not-for-profit, nonpartisan organization brings together state health policymakers to develop policy solutions to emerging healthcare issues.
“I think his big issue is healthcare coverage and financing,” Rosenbaum says. “So his focus has been on looking for ways in which the policy environment can support state innovations.”
He is a member of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured and was also an appointed member of President Clinton’s Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry, which drafted a patient’s bill of rights.