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Spreading the health

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The gig: President and chief executive of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a private nonprofit research and communications organization in Menlo Park, Calif., devoted to U.S. and worldwide healthcare issues.

A man on a mission: A former human services commissioner in New Jersey, Altman transformed a sleepy grant maker into a major nonpartisan healthcare information source for journalists, politicians and the public.

The secret of success: Altman, 59, spotted an opportunity long before healthcare made daily headlines: When he arrived at Kaiser in 1990, he saw himself as a nonprofit entrepreneur, or as he puts it, "an opportunist in pursuit of the public good."

Success, he says, depended on building a valued name. "You're credible only through the product you produce," he said. "We were not instantly credible on Day One. It took years."

A sports nut: Altman, who grew up in Boston, is a huge fan of the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots. "That's my religion," he said, noting that he catches Red Sox games on his laptop whenever he can.

He's also a compulsive exerciser, working out one to two hours a day, whether he's at home or on the road. His favorite machine: the VersaClimber, a loose variation of the better-known StairMaster.

Fitness has been a lifelong practice for Altman, who played football for Brandeis University outside Boston in the early 1970s (the team was known as the Judges, after former Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, the school's namesake).

Sports taught Altman an important lesson about stamina, what he calls an "underappreciated quality in life."

A hero: Kaiser has long promoted healthcare in South Africa, and that has put Altman face to face with its most celebrated citizen, Nelson Mandela. Altman met the former South African president shortly after he was released from prison in 1990. The foundation named an award after him -- the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.

"He's arguably the greatest person in the world, but he's equally interested in talking to the guy sweeping the floor as he is in talking to a head of state," Altman said. "One of the most impressive things about Mandela is his humility, his connection to average people. It has had a lasting impact on me."

Blues traveler: Altman plays blues guitar for fun but devotes most of his time to his job; to his wife, Pam Koch, a former hospital administrator; and to their two adult children. "I live on United Airlines," he said.

The payoff: All of that effort has helped turn Kaiser's website, at www.kff.org, into a must-read for healthcare devotees. Among its offerings: information on reproductive health for low-income women and racial disparities in medical treatment, and easy-to-read summaries of the new national healthcare reform legislation.

"I set out to build an organization that provided . . . facts and information that people can trust," Altman said. "We felt we could be a counterweight to the money and politics that dominate healthcare."

Managing insights: Altman says that Kaiser "lives and dies" by the quality of its information. Producing sophisticated analyses requires talented people who understand the intersection of health policy and communications. And it means keeping things loose: Kaiser has no preset budgets for its programs.

"Money goes to the best ideas," Altman said. "That's intended to avoid fiefdoms and rigid bureaucracies, and to create an entrepreneurial environment."

Staying relevant: Altman believes the foundation's future lies in its ability to evolve. KFF, as the foundation is known, often promotes its message by teaming up with media outlets such as MTV and Black Entertainment Television. Last year it launched a national news service, Kaiser Health News, to provide in-depth coverage of healthcare policy and politics.

"The challenge now is not to coast . . . to continue to reinvent the organization so we do not become stale," Altman said.

Keeping things clear: Altman likes to remind people that the Kaiser Family Foundation has nothing to do with Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization, other than a name. On occasion, Kaiser HMO members call him and ask: "How dare you spend my precious healthcare dollars on that stupid study on health reform?" he joked. "You can't blame them for being confused."

duke.helfand@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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