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Sen./Dr. Dan Foster: West Virginian of the Year

See the full list of West Virginians of the Year here.

 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For two years, he worked tirelessly promoting legislation for what then was a novel idea -- promoting healthy lifestyles by requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts for their menu items.

After two sessions, and numerous setbacks and negotiations, the bill seemed ready to pass in 2009. Then, one infamous morning late in the session, the bill was not only killed but openly mocked by members of the House Government Organization Committee, who gorged themselves on high-calorie breakfast biscuits and doughnuts as they oversaw the bill's demise.

In a Legislature full of large egos and thin skins, most legislators would have been furious to lose a bill in such a manner -- but not Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha. Foster was stoic, saying he believed news coverage of the legislation had served a purpose in raising the public's awareness about counting calories when they eat out.

Indeed, as health-care lobbyist Perry Bryant noted, within a year the restaurant industry relented and allowed calorie counts to be included as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, concluding it would be better to have one national standard to follow rather than 50 different state requirements.

"[Foster] contributed to the momentum," Bryant said of the publicity regarding Foster's calorie-posting bill. The new federal regulation goes into effect next year.

"His presence in the Legislature has been a breath of fresh air. He would take positions on a lot of issues that most people would shy away from," Bryant noted. "He never played it safe."

Whether taking on the pharmaceutical industry over payola to physicians to prescribe certain brand-name drugs, the tobacco industry in order to raise cigarette taxes or retail drug store chains to restrict sales of pseudoephedrine -- a key ingredient in making methamphetamine -- or as one of a few legislators to vocally support the ACA, friends and colleagues note that Foster always brought a brilliant analytical mind and a bulldog tenacity to the fight.

While Foster's decade of legislative service is coming to a close -- he did not run for re-election this year -- all expect him to continue to make his presence felt at the Capitol, as well as his continuing efforts to improve the quality of life in the Kanawha Valley through service on numerous boards and commissions, including West Virginians for Affordable Health Care and the West Virginia Symphony.

For his tireless commitment to improving the health and well being of the state and the Kanawha Valley, the Sunday Gazette-Mail has chosen Dr. Dan Foster as the 2012 West Virginian of the Year.

Soft-spoken, gentle and unassuming -- never self-aggrandizing -- Foster is more than just a physician or politician. He's a Renaissance man who plays classical piano, collects art and leads cultural efforts in the Kanawha Valley

Foster, 64, was relatively a latecomer to politics, first running for the Legislature in 2002 after more than 20 years as a general and vascular surgeon in Charleston.

He was one of a number of health-care providers to run for the Legislature that year, at the height of the state's discussions over medical-malpractice insurance costs.

While most of the physician/candidates pushed for "tort reform" to cap malpractice settlements and legal fees, Foster saw the issue as multi-faceted, also involving concessions from the insurance industry and the physician community.

Foster came to Charleston in 1979, having grown up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where his father worked with the Manhattan Project and the national nuclear laboratory. After graduating from Harvard University and the Stanford University School of Medicine, Foster did his surgical residency at the Tulane University medical center, where he met and married his wife, Kathy. They have three sons.

After serving a term in the West Virginia House of Delegates, Foster was elected to the Senate in 2004 and 2008, where he established himself as a leader on health-care issues.

"Absolutely, without a doubt, he's the most highly motivated legislator I ever met -- ever," said House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne. "As they say in athletics, Dan has a high motor. He doesn't go for the stop, he goes for the sack."

Perdue recalled teaming up with Foster to get a bill, which required prescription drug sellers to say how much they spent marketing their drugs to doctors, through the Senate in 2004.

Needing to sway the vote of one prominent senator, Perdue recalled, "We literally sat outside his door until midnight. He could not leave his office without talking to us."

When Foster was committed to an issue, that bulldog tenacity was typical, Perdue said. "Once he sunk his teeth into you, he would not let you go."

Perdue noted that while Foster is quiet, his words demand attention.

"Almost everything he says is important to the issue, and that's uncommon here," Perdue said. "He does not believe in chit-chat."

Fellow 17th District Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said Foster's temperament as a surgeon has served him well in the Legislature.

"He never gets mad. He never loses his cool, but there's no one in the Senate more persistent on issues," McCabe said. "He just does not give up."

While many legislators avoid the controversial or complex, McCabe said Foster embraced such issues, be it the intricacies of health-care reform or coming up with ways to adequately fund public employee pension plans as chairman of the Senate Pensions Committee.

"He brought attention to the issues -- contentious stuff that most legislators don't want to have to deal with," said McCabe. "He wanted to change things. He didn't want to occupy a position."

"He's fearless and unafraid to speak truth to power," said Margaret Chapman Pomponio of WV FREE. "He's willing to stand up and say things others may be thinking but are afraid to say."

Foster frequently championed the women's health-rights group against conservative attacks in the Legislature.

"He brings a certain amount of sanity and bright light to a place that sometimes can make a person feel cynical," she said.

Jack Canfield, a former legislator who has worked alongside Foster in numerous capacities, including on the symphony's Board of Directors and as a citizen member of a legislative interim committee, said he's always been impressed with Foster's willingness to serve.

"He's like the Energizer bunny -- everywhere at once," Canfield said. "He goes from a legislative meeting to a community group gathering at a fire hall, to an art exhibit, and then visits someone in the hospital on the way home."

McCabe concurred, saying he's always amazed that, in addition to his day job as an administrator at Charleston Area Medical Center and his legislative duties, Foster not only has managed to serve on a variety of boards and commissions -- including over the years, the Charleston Convention and Visitors' Bureau, the Kanawha Valley Fellowship Home, the Clay Center and the Education Alliance -- but also attends a variety of issue-oriented public meetings in the community.

"He is everywhere," McCabe said. "It is astounding to me his conscientious approach to what I call grassroots politics."

Those at other levels of politics have noted Foster's work, as well.

"As physician, senator and advocate, Dan's work on behalf of others has had an enormous impact on our state, particularly in improving access to health care," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "He has totally dedicated himself to fighting for policies that bring good to West Virginians, and it's been a privilege to work with him over the years."

Sen. Joe Manchin, also D-W.Va., who served as governor during much of Foster's legislative tenure, said, "During my time in Charleston, everyone knew that Dan was a man we all could trust, a man of strong character who worked tirelessly for the people of Kanawha County and the people of West Virginia."

As a longtime participant and observer in the legislative process, Canfield said he appreciates those "uh-oh" moments in committee meetings, and said no one delivers them better than Foster.

"You're testifying, and Senator Foster raises his hand. You know it's going to be something like, 'I assume you're familiar with the story in The New York Times this morning about the new computer system for Medicaid in North Dakota . .  '" Canfield said.

Although Foster's legislative service is ending, Perdue said he intends to continue to seek his counsel on health-care issues.

"I've already told him, you can leave us, but that doesn't mean you can leave me," Perdue said.

Said Canfield, "He's fought many, many fights to improve the health of West Virginians. Sometimes, he's taken on fights he knows he can't win, but he uses every discussion as a teaching moment, and has had a real impact."

"He exemplifies to my mind what the best of public service is, and the best of being a professional," said McCabe. "He has been a star in both cases."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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