Gilmore's Health Aide Finds Self In Hot Seat
By R.H. Melton
RICHMOND –– A year ago, Cabinet secretary Claude A. Allen spent his maiden session of the Virginia General Assembly trying to snuff out the political fires that scorch every first-year governor.
This year, Allen is lighting his own fires.
More than anyone else on the leadership team of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), Allen is in the middle of hot social and cultural issues, including the Hugh Finn right-to-die case, abortion and a top-to-bottom overhaul of Virginia's sometimes uneven delivery of medical services.
Allen, the health secretary and one of two African Americans in the nine-member Cabinet, is everywhere this week as the assembly winds down, trying to protect Gilmore's agenda with an ideological fervor that some health care advocates say could be hurting the delivery of assistance to those who need it most.
"This secretariat truly does touch every life in the commonwealth," Allen said. At the same time, he added, "we believe the state should step in only where absolutely necessary and when it does step in, it's in a minimalist way."
To his admirers -- and there are many in the conservative cadre that has been in power after Gilmore's 1997 election -- Allen, 38, is a loyal lieutenant who articulates the governor's views with perfect pitch. They say he has the energy to handle the government's cradle-to-grave health services and other responsibilities, such as welfare reform.
"His policies reflect a very pro-family perspective," said Robin DeJarnette, a lobbyist for the conservative Family Foundation. "He passionately believes in those, so he fights hard. You never doubt where he stands."
Allen's is probably the toughest Cabinet post, said David E. Anderson, Gilmore's top legal adviser. "You take all the tough issues and pop them into one portfolio," he said.
Along with a ton of money. Allen presides over 16,000 employees in 12 agencies that churn through billions of federal and state dollars every year, holding a monetary safety net that advocates are always trying to expand and he tries to contain.
Along the way, Allen has infuriated long-serving lobbyists for health care industries and liberals and moderates of both parties who say he is at best an unresponsive manager and at worst an executive who is trying to dismantle longstanding programs for women and children.
Allen's first taste of battle last year was a fight over expanding insurance benefits for child health care, a struggle that he and Gilmore ultimately won with a narrower benefits program but that also left many hurt feelings among lawmakers.
"I'm not sure he fully comprehends the legislative prerogatives and how we have to deal with issues," said Del. Robert S. Bloxom (R-Accomack), a 20-year veteran.
"He's been overwhelmed," Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) said of Allen. "A lot's been brought down on his shoulders that, one, he didn't deserve, and, two, didn't expect."
Chichester, the senior Republican in the Senate, is sponsoring a measure designed to force Allen to do a better job of communicating to a variety of caregivers in the state.
Allen opposes the idea. "You can't mandate communication," he told a panel of lawmakers last week.
In an interview, he added that difficulties in communicating with medical care providers is "a continuing issue" but noted that "the reason I can speak so strongly against that legislation is because we're working to build bridges and collaborate with providers and consumers and, in the end, taxpayers."
But many lawmakers, including those in his own party, said they do not trust Allen to provide data and insight. "There have been major problems, major gaps," said Del. Anne G. Rhodes (R-Richmond), who has tussled with Gilmore and heard Allen's objections to Chichester's measure the other day.
Several lobbyists for health care interests argued in that subcommittee session that Allen was falling down on the job. Katharine M. Webb, a veteran advocate for private hospitals, pointed out that an advisory panel on indigent health care had not even met since October 1997, and Mary Lynne Bailey, a spokeswoman for Virginia's nursing home industry, pleaded for "more interactive give-and-take."
"What's the problem?" Rhodes exclaimed at the subcommittee session.
Allen replied to Rhodes that his department was going to improve communications and suggested in an interview that lawmakers may not fully understand his mission.
"Many, particularly in the legislative branch, have not seen as aggressive an administration, or as coordinated an administration in getting this job done," he said.
There was another little flare-up yesterday, when Del. Glenn R. Croshaw (D-Virginia Beach) slapped a committee conference table and scolded Allen for not adequately staffing an important meeting on right-to-die legislation that Croshaw favors and Allen opposes.
When Allen coolly replied he had spoken to delegates, Croshaw thundered: "There was nobody! I think that is an inappropriate misrepresentation! It's not a good way to do business!"
Allen kept calm. "It's amazing," he said later, "where we've gotten in this debate in Virginia: so polarized."
Allen has been highly visible in the case of Hugh Finn, who had severe brain injuries and whom Gilmore sought to keep alive last fall over the objections of Finn's wife, Michele. Allen, who like his boss heard from family members, said there was no contradiction between their small-government philosophy and the governor trying strenuously to keep Finn on life support.
"He sets the course where we go, and when he sets that course, my job is to go," Allen said.
Allen and Gilmore have a strong relationship that dates to 1995, when the former Capitol Hill aide-turned-lawyer joined Gilmore's team at the office of the attorney general. One of their first conversations, Allen recalled, was about affirmative action, and since then, Gilmore has pointedly reached out to African Americans.
Allen, a D.C. native who grew up there and in Raleigh, N.C. -- he was once press secretary to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) -- said the administration's goal is "picking up groups and individuals who were for so long disenfranchised and yet is doing it in a way that does not abandon our core philosophy of limited government.
"I don't think of myself in light of, 'What am I doing for black Americans?' " he said. "I think of myself as, 'What am I doing to help all Americans?' And by doing that, that's going to help my people, very clearly."
Still, some observers say Allen views the social outreach of his department through a narrow ideological prism.
State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), one of the assembly's experts on health care, said Allen's department was much too slow in delivering data during a study on ways to expand Medicaid funding for the blighted mental health system.
"They stonewalled us -- there's no way around it," Gartlan said.
Allen concedes that he has sometimes had a bumpy ride, but he notes in the same breath that he will not veer from the Gilmore agenda.
"When you talk of ideology -- philosophy, yes, that does have an impact on how we review policies and procedures," he said. "I believe, looking at an issue: See how it fits with the governor's philosophy."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company