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Steven Thompson, 62; Helped Shape Healthcare Policy

August 18, 2004|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

Steven M. Thompson, among California's most influential healthcare policy analysts and lobbyists, died Tuesday in Sacramento. He was 62.

Thompson was governmental affairs director for the California Medical Assn. for the last 12 years. Before that, he was a close aide to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, serving as his chief of staff and director of the Assembly Office of Research in the 1980s and early '90s.

"He was central to my operation," Brown said Tuesday. "Steven was probably the most brilliant of all of them. He was the health guy for the state of California."

Thompson was known as "the Health SMIC" -- short for "smartest man in California" -- on healthcare-related issues. During nearly four decades in Sacramento, he helped shaped legislation affecting healthcare for poor people as well as the care of mentally ill and developmentally disabled people.

"Although most Californians didn't know Steve Thompson, he is going to be missed by everybody," said Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), a physician who worked on bills with Thompson. "He was passionate every day in trying to improve healthcare for all Californians."

In an unusual display of respect for an unelected Capitol denizen, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered statehouse flags lowered to half-staff. The state Senate interrupted its work, pausing to rename a 2002 program that Thompson helped create to help defray medical school loans for students who agree to work in areas where there is a dearth of medical care. The program will be known as the Steven M. Thompson Physician Corps Loan Repayment Program.

Thompson, ill with cancer, testified at a hearing last month in opposition to the merger of Anthem Inc. and WellPoint Health Systems. Thompson had told The Times recently that he hoped to survive long enough to see the merger significantly modified if not blocked.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, John Burton (D-San Francisco), leader of the upper house, said Thompson was instrumental in shaping dozens of laws. One, which Burton carried in the 1960s, requires that public schools educate autistic children. Another, last year's Senate Bill 2 by Burton, would require businesses with 50 or more employees to provide them with health insurance.

In a move that suspends the measure, at least for now, business groups have placed a referendum, Proposition 72, on the November ballot to repeal it.

"He relished the battlefield of this building," Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said Tuesday of Thompson.

John Mockler, who like Thompson was among Speaker Brown's top aides in the 1970s when the Legislature was striving to become more professional, said Thompson "symbolized that one bright moment in California when the Legislature tried to become a co-equal branch of government."

Not everyone was an admirer of Thompson. In the 1990s, Stanton Glantz, a UC San Francisco medical school professor and anti-tobacco advocate, criticized Thompson for what Glantz viewed as an attempt to aid the tobacco industry by diverting money away from tobacco-control measures toward general healthcare programs.

Dr. Jack Lewin, chief executive officer of the medical association, Tuesday dismissed Glantz's charges, noting that under Thompson, the California Medical Assn. was a leading advocate in 1994 for legislation banning smoking in restaurants, bars and other public places.

In the 1960s, Thompson was a legislative staffer who worked on a major overhaul of mental health law, leading to the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act. The law gave mentally ill people greater rights, although it left many homeless as it helped empty state hospitals.

He also helped shape legislation in the 1960s creating the system of caring for severely developmentally disabled people in smaller regional centers rather than in large state hospitals. In later years, he lamented the lack of care given to mentally ill people and worked on legislation to improve the treatment of the chronically mentally ill.

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) turned to Thompson to help generate support for a November initiative to tax high-income people to expand mental healthcare.

"He knew the state made a promise and was not living up to it," Steinberg said Tuesday.

Beth Capell, lobbyist for Health Access, a coalition that includes labor, consumers, advocates for the elderly and others, often opposed Thompson. But they were allies in shaping Senate Bill 2, the measure requiring employers to provide healthcare.

Two weeks ago, shortly after Thompson had been diagnosed as having inoperable cancer, they jointly visited the legislative analyst to dispute a cost analysis of the measure. She said Thompson was as contentious as ever.

"Twenty-five years of arguing with the guy," she said fondly. "He enjoyed the fight."

Thompson is survived by his wife, attorney Nancy Miller, and four children.

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