Profile: Mark McClellan - Washington wunderkind

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Mark McClellan
Mark McClellan

Mark McClellan never planned on working in Washington, much less heading the massive Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

“I don't think I ever really had a career plan, at least not one I followed,” says the congenial McClellan, who served as CMS administrator from 2004 to 2006.

Those in healthcare are glad he didn't. By virtue of his vast experience in government, the uprooted Texan has become a key go-to person on issues of healthcare and long-term care in the beltway.

He is a driving force behind the new Long-Term Quality Alliance, which will examine how long-term care quality contributes to overall healthcare costs.

One take-away from his time at CMS was learning “that the wrong way to view nursing homes is as a separate silo with their own per diem payments,” he explains. “Clearly there are lots of things happening in nursing homes that influence health and influence healthcare costs throughout the healthcare system.”

Long-term care leaders have the highest respect for McClellan, who at only 46 is a bit of a Washington wunderkind.
“In my nine years, there's no [public servant] I think more highly of than Mark McClellan,” says Larry Minnix, CEO of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.  

Not only was McClellan familiar with the issues at CMS, he knew how to bring people together and possessed integrity, recalls Minnix, who began his tenure at AAHSA in 2001.

People thought of him as an “honest broker,” adds David Hebert, legislative director of the American Health Care Association. “He was accessible, smart and always willing to listen to other people's points of view.”

McClellan, who would joke that the rigors of leading CMS put him right to sleep at night, has settled into his job at the Brookings Institution. Not only can he work on the same issues and with the same people, but he also can get home in time to make dinner for his twin daughters, Alex and Ellie, 11.

Being a dad “puts things in perspective,” notes McClellan, who is divorced. He might work on a “$500 million hospital problem” during the day and then help with homework at night, he explains.

While McClellan never expected to be a big shot in Washington, politics and the law seem to be a part of his DNA. His grandfather W. Page Keeton was a longtime dean of the University of Texas Law School. His mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, was mayor of Austin, TX, from 1977 to 1983. And his brothers, Scott, Brad and Dudley, are all involved in politics. He worked with Scott in the Bush administration when Scott was White House press secretary. (Growing up, he and his brothers were competitive—but more on the tennis court than elsewhere.)

Going to medical school actually was a way for McClellan to get away from the family business. But after he finished his medical residency, he had an opportunity to work as a political appointee in the Clinton administration, and took it.

Now McClellan, who, besides tennis, loves all things Star Trek, is following the example set by generations before him.

“My grandfather used to say it's not the dollars you make; it's the difference you make,” he says.