DES MOINES — For years, Dave Heaton spent Sundays slicing roast beef for folks coming through the buffet line at his Iris Restaurant and listening to folks from the Mount Pleasant area tell him what was on their minds.

Eventually, Heaton took that accumulated knowledge to Des Moines to make sausage — the legislative variety.

Heaton, who has been a key player in state health and human services issues, has decided not to seek re-election from House District 84, which includes parts of Henry, Lee, Jefferson and Washington counties.

“I’m 77 years old, and I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be here on this Earth,” the Republican said Tuesday. “I thought maybe it was time for someone else to take my place.”

As co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, Heaton has been at the center of legislation affecting the delivery and oversight of the state’s social safety net. Human services account for about 25 percent of the state’s $7 billion-plus general fund budget.

“I’m going to leave a lot of things undone,” said Heaton, a former public school teacher. “We still have to continue to improve mental health (and) work at getting the bumps out of our managed care for Medicaid.”

Legislators and policymakers also have to deal with a state that is growing older.

“We’re going to have to face the fact that we’re going to have to take more and more care of our seniors,” whether that’s through home health or in nursing homes, he said.

In his 12 terms in the Legislature, the redesign of mental health services and establishing regions for delivery of those services “was one of the great things that I got to work on,” Heaton said.

The biggest challenge has been Medicaid managed care after former Gov. Terry Branstad moved management of the state’s Medicaid system from the state to private companies.

“I really didn’t have an opportunity to work at legislating it. It was handed to us, and we had to deal with it,” Heaton said. “That still occupies a lot of my time.”

Heaton originally ran for the state Senate but lost to Tom Vilsack, who went on to become governor. In 1994, Heaton was elected to the Iowa House.

Heaton expects he will miss the legislative work. He started out working on agriculture, transportation and economic development issues — “everything that had to do with being from Mount Pleasant.”

His first “big bill” was managing the graduated driver’s license in 1996. It was a new concept then, “but we still have it today, and it’s been very successful.”

He became interested in human services while dealing with children’s issues as a member of the Judiciary Committee.

“I’ve been so happy to have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, trying to improve the quality of life for people. It’s been very rewarding and very challenging,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”