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Assistant U.S. Health Secretary Rachel L. Levine ’79 Discusses Pandemic-Fueled Public Health Challenges

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant health secretary Rachel L. Levine '79 discussed public health challenges in the age of a pandemic at a Tuesday forum event.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant health secretary Rachel L. Levine '79 discussed public health challenges in the age of a pandemic at a Tuesday forum event. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Krishi Kishore and Waseem S. Nabulsi, Contributing Writers

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant health secretary Rachel L. Levine ’79 discussed public health challenges in the age of a pandemic at a forum event hosted by the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics on Tuesday evening.

The virtual forum — moderated by Kennedy School Professor of Public Policy Marcella M. Alsan ’99 — was held in celebration of BGLTQ History Month. Levine made history in March as the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Before joining the Biden administration, Levine served as Physician General and Secretary of Health for the state of Pennsylvania.

The conversation began with Alsan asking Levine about the role of HHS in addressing social determinants of health “as a key driver of health disparities” in the midst of the pandemic.

“The ability to have an education — that is a health issue. Housing is a health issue. The environment is a health issue. Transportation … that’s a health issue,” Levine said. “Working with the social determinants of health and working for health equity is a priority ... for the administration.”

Alsan steered the conversation toward Levine’s policy views on the opioid epidemic, an issue that was at the center of her agenda as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health.

“We tend to look at any of these things like overdoses as diseases of despair, and, unfortunately, we have seen more despair, more loneliness and isolation during Covid-19,” Levine said.

Levine explained that she believes public health policy for the opioid epidemic should be centered on four domains — prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery — and supported this claim by bridging the connection between opioid addiction, mental health, and crime.

“We don’t want to incarcerate someone if primarily what they’re suffering from is the disease of addiction, and they have a nonviolent crime. There are other alternatives to incarcerating that person,” Levine said. “You can get them into treatment and into a drug court so they can be monitored as an outpatient, and you can avoid the incarceration in the first place.”

Levine said the pandemic has had an “exacerbated” negative effect on youth mental health, which has sparked innovative initiatives from public health officials.

“One thing that has been shown to be very useful, particularly with teens are suicide hotlines that involve texting,” Levine said. “Using chat or text for suicide hotlines is absolutely necessary if you’re going to make those services available to teenagers.”

Addressing health care challenges faced by the BGLTQ community, Levine said she remains hopeful about the future of health equity.

“It’s amazing that we have a president that champions us,” Levine said. “He is committed to advancing the state and federal efforts to allow LGBTQ+ people to have full access to medical care and really, full access to their civil rights.”

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