Koh Tapped To Be Assistant Secretary for Health


President Obama has tapped an associate dean at the Harvard School of Public Health to serve as the second-highest health official in the country.

Howard K. Koh will manage the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health as assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services, Obama announced in his nomination Wednesday. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

He will be joining his brother Harold H. Koh ’75—a former dean of Yale Law School who was chosen as Legal Adviser to the State Department last week— in Washington.

According to several of his colleagues, Howard Koh’s qualifications and competency are unmatched. He is board certified in four specialties—internal medicine, hematology, medical oncology, and dermatology—and holds a degree in public health.

Many said they predicted Koh would serve in the Obama administration in some capacity, but few guessed he would assume what James H. Ware, the dean for academic affairs at HSPH, called the “highest public health position in the federal government.”

“The new secretary is a person with a background in insurance and was formerly the governor of Kansas,” said Ware, referring to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who was tapped to lead the Department of Health and Human Services last month. “[Koh] will be the most senior person in the health profession.”

“This is a time that is very exciting because the Obama administration has big ambitions surrounding health care reform,” Ware said.

Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, an HSPH associate professor who works at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and is one of Koh’s most frequent collaborators, said that there is “remarkable resonance” in the civil and private sector to overhaul health care—and that Koh will be there to lead the effort.

Viswanath added that the economic crisis has disproportionately affected certain groups, like the poor and disenfranchised, which leads to heightened public health concerns among these demographics. He said that when people lose jobs, they lose access to insurance and can no longer afford medication—another timely issue that Koh will have to address.

“This is a remarkable confluence of events,” Viswanath said.

Nancy Turnbull, an associate dean at HSPH, said that her department was “giddy” about the nomination. She said that Koh is one of the best communicators she has ever met, and that he has the unique ability to take complicated information and make it relevant to a broad array of audiences.

“He can talk to the top researchers in the world and be very comfortable in a community setting,” she said.

Turnbull added that Koh has the ability to understand the combined power of policy change and community action—which in the past led him to found MassCONECT, a project that aims to reduce cancer resource disparities in low income communities.

“He is one of those rare individuals who is deeply committed to evidence-based work, but at the same time is also committed to social justice,” said Viswanath, who worked with Koh on MassCONECT.

Prior to joining the Harvard faculty, Koh was the Massachusetts public health commissioner from 1997-2003, where he was an unusually effective communicator, championing issues of tobacco cessation, health care disparities, and community involvement, Ware said.

Ware said that Koh spearheaded a tobacco prevention program that led to a dramatic decline in smoking rates in the state, particularly among young people.

“The program had a clear-cut impact,” Ware said.

State Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, who first got to know Koh while he was Commissioner, said the two worked together to save Koutoujian’s local hospital in Waltham, and the two have been close ever since.

Koutoujian said that Koh built consensus—an ability hailed by a number of his colleagues—by convincing all the players that it was in their best interest to give the hospital a chance to stay open.

“The hospital got a reprieve,” he said. “It got a second chance because of Howard’s actions.”

Koutoujian called Koh a man of incredible intellect, incredible integrity, and of incredible kindness.

“He is really one of my heroes,” Koutoujian said. “I don’t consider too many people to be heroes.”

—Staff writer Laura G. Mirviss can be reached at lmirviss@fas.harvard.edu.

The Mar. 27 news article "Koh Tapped To Be Assistant Secretary for Health" incorrectly stated that incoming Assistant Secretary for Health Howard K. Koh would manage the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health, based on information provided by the Harvard School of Public Health. In fact, Koh will not manage those agencies in his new role.