ALBANY, N.Y. -- Dr. Richard Daines, the innovative New York health commissioner who left a lucrative private-sector career to fight for public health issues -- including a battle against childhood obesity -- has died at age 60.
Daines died unexpectedly Saturday at home two months after he stepped down from public office, said his spokeswoman, Claudia Hutton.
Daines, a former Mormon missionary, led former Gov. David Paterson's effort to create a "fat tax" on soda that would fund programs to fight childhood obesity.
The former Eagle Scout and Scout master waged his campaign in English and Spanish and included some of the first uses of YouTube by a state commissioner.
He also managed the closing of hospitals and hospital wings in a program to reduce the cost of the Medicaid health care system for the poor.
Although that effort was one of Albany's most difficult political challenges, Daines worked closely with legislators, including Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, who were trying to protect local hospitals and their work forces.
"He was creative, thoughtful, courageous and passionately committed to public health," said Gottfried, calling Daines "one of the finest health commissioners New York has ever had."
The cause of death has not been confirmed. Daines was found by state police in his barn in Stanfordville, Dutchess County, where he had been taking down Christmas decorations. It appeared Daines was in overall good health but might have had a heart attack, Hutton said.
Before joining state government in 2007 as part of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to bring what he called the best and brightest minds to Albany, Daines was chief executive of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan.
In Albany, Daines promoted the development of primary care and patient-centered medical homes. He also created a new office in the department to focus on health information technology.
Daines was to be a visiting scholar at the New York Academy of Medicine.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he was saddened by the news. "Dr. Daines worked tirelessly to improve the health of all New Yorkers, and his knowledge and deep faith has left a lasting impression on all those who worked with him. This is a tremendous loss not just for the state, but for the entire medical community."
Paterson praised Daines for continuing the fight to tax sugary drinks to fund programs aimed at childhood obesity and diabetes, even though there was little chance of winning politically.
"It was harpooned and ridiculed to the point we even acknowledged we didn't think the Legislature would do it," Paterson said of the bill that never became law, but raised awareness nationwide.
"But we came to the conclusion this really was the right policy, and Dr. Daines implored me to stick with it."
Daines graduated from Utah State University in 1974 and served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Bolivia from 1970 to 1972. He attended Cornell University Medical College soon afterward and graduated in 1978.
Survivors include his wife, Linda; three children; and a grandson.