Stephen Berger

2015 Recipient, Special Tribute

The United Hospital Fund periodically recognizes individuals who have had a significant impact on health care in New York and have earned the respect and admiration of UHF and the health care community. This year we are pleased to salute Stephen Berger for his outstanding contributions to New York and to health care.

A quintessential New Yorker, Stephen Berger has parlayed intellectual curiosity, a firm belief in government and public policy as forces for public good, and an appetite for tough assignments into a career largely spent reshaping the landscape of New York’s finances, public transportation, and, most recently, health care. His name has become synonymous with one of New York’s most dramatic attempts to rationalize access to effective health care—an effort that was as controversial as it was essential, ultimately winning broad acceptance by health care providers, regulators, and labor alike.

The path to leading that initiative, the 2005-2007 Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century—commonly known as the Berger Commission—began on the Lower East Side, where Steve grew up with parents active in the reform Democratic movement. It was good preparation for a career that began with running election campaigns, moved through a series of appointments—by five governors and a president—to sensitive public service positions, and expanded into major corporate and entrepreneurial successes.

Steve’s first State appointment came in 1971, when he was named executive director of the State Study Commission for New York City, charged with reviewing the city’s economics and major operations, including the Health and Hospitals Corporation. That work—which predicted the coming fiscal crisis—“gave me a foundation,” Steve says, “in public fiscal policy and in delivery of health and social services.”

After heading incoming Governor Hugh Carey’s transition team, Steve went on to serve as State Commissioner of Social Services. Then, in 1976, at the height of the financial crisis, he was appointed head of the Emergency Financial Control Board. Still in his mid-30s, Steve became responsible for reviewing the City’s $12.5 billion budget, and designing a plan to facilitate its financial recovery.

A diverse portfolio followed: teaching of graduate-level public policy and finance at NYU; chairing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s finance committee; consulting for the Municipal Assistance Corporation; heading the U.S. Railway Association, to bring Conrail out of bankruptcy; serving as director of corporate development at Oppenheimer & Co.; leading the Port Authority; and returning to the private sector at GE Capital. In 1997, Steve became a founding member of Odyssey Investment Partners, where he continues to serve as chairman.

None of that brought him the name recognition, however, of his 2005 appointment as chairman of Governor Pataki’s ambitious health care restructuring commission, which brought the concept of “rightsizing” hospitals and nursing homes to public attention. The Commission, Steve says, was a first step toward a series of necessary health system changes, in financing and payment, workforce issues, and service delivery—especially a focus on primary care, and on breaking down the silos between acute, long-term, and behavioral care.

In an echo of that role, Steve took on, in 2011, the equally sensitive job of chairing the Brooklyn Health Systems Redesign Work Group of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Medicaid Redesign Team. Today, he continues to play a key role in health care reform as a member of the Project Approval and Oversight Panel for DSRIP, the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program, guiding New York’s investment of $6 billion in federal funds, through the State’s Medicaid waiver.

“What did the Commission accomplish? We laid out a framework, talked about the need to move to a preventive health system, how to change reimbursement, preserve community health and boost primary care,” Steve says—concerns that he continues to address as a member, since 2014, of the UHF board, chair of its program committee, and active Health Policy Forum member. “We went to the edge of where I thought we could go.” The Commission members, he notes, did an amazing job. And his role? “I’ve never been a good soloist, but I think I’m a very good conductor. I’m able to get a lot of players to play on the same page. And I don’t mind taking the heat.”

That “bold and brash” persona, though, say colleagues, fronts someone with a big heart, who “really cares about what happens to people…. His was often a lone voice, but one with great importance. He’s never concerned about reactions to what he says when he believes he is right.”

The United Hospital Fund salutes that voice, and Steve’s willingness to take on challenging issues to advance the goal of better health care access for all, through impassioned, intelligent public service.

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