Baltimore health commissioner: this 'was my dream job'

I became a doctor because I wanted to provide care to those who are the most vulnerable. In the ER, I saw how much poverty, race, ZIP code and persisting disparities influence health — that it’s public health that can level the playing field of inequality.

Four years ago, I was given the incredible opportunity to become the Baltimore City health commissioner. It was my dream job. Tomorrow is my last day. Next month, I begin my new role as president of Planned Parenthood. Through the leadership of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Mayor Catherine Pugh, and with the partnership of community organizations, faith leaders, hospitals, businesses, universities and civic volunteers, we have made significant strides to improve health and combat disparities.

Our B’more for Healthy Babies program, a collaborative that engages more than 150 public and private partners, has decreased infant mortality by nearly 40 percent over the last seven years, closed the disparity between black and white infant mortality by more than 50 percent and dropped teen birth rates by 61 percent.

We expanded the success of B’More for Healthy Babies into a citywide youth health and wellness strategy that included simple but life-changing interventions — like glasses. With partners including Johns Hopkins University and Warby Parker, we started Vision for Baltimore, which is providing eye exams and glasses to every child who needs them, right in their schools, without the child missing class or the parents missing work. At its halfway mark earlier this year, Vision for Baltimore had distributed more than 3,000 pairs of glasses in 81 schools.

In the face of the opioid epidemic, we developed an aggressive and comprehensive strategy for preventing overdose and treating addiction. In 2015, I issued a blanket prescription for the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. Residents have used naloxone to save nearly 3,000 lives of fellow residents in the last three years. To increase access to “on demand” treatment, Baltimore opened a first-of-its-kind stabilization center — the beginning of a 24/7 E.R. for addiction and mental health. We became the first city in the country to work with all 11 hospitals to implement “levels of care” best practices for addiction treatment. Together with Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore and our partners in public safety, we started Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion to provide treatment rather than incarceration and are targeting “hot spots” to prevent deaths from fentanyl.

Our agency has strengthened our core public health functions to protect our residents by providing best-in-class HIV, STD, hepatitis and tuberculosis services in our clinics; preparing for outbreaks like measles, Ebola and Zika; and preventing food-borne illness through environmental inspections. I’m proud of our innovative work to prevent falls among older adults, to expand virtual supermarkets and healthy corner stores to reduce food deserts, and to pilot innovations such as telemedicine, trauma-informed care and the Accountable Health Communities program.

As we work to provide health services, we have also been on the frontlines of advocacy and policy. In the last four years, we have successfully championed public health legislation. Baltimore became the first major city to replace soda with a healthy drink as the default in kids’ meals. We also banned Styrofoam in restaurants, implemented a Good Samaritan Law that protects people at an overdose scene from arrest and successfully advocated for public health funding for various programs including for Healthy Babies, Safe Streets and those that combat the opioid epidemic.

We have not been afraid to take on tough fights. When the Trump administration cut our funding for teen pregnancy prevention education, we sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and won, allowing 20,000 young people to continue to receive evidence-based education. We also sued the Trump administration for intentional and willful sabotage of the Affordable Care Act, spoke out against the unconscionable cuts to Title X family planning grants, and are refusing to accept insufficient and significantly reduced federal funding for the problems that need addressing.

Our team at the Baltimore Health Department has received numerous recognitions for our work, most recently the Local Health Department of the Year by the National Association of City and County Health Officials. This extraordinary team does a lot with very little, and I know that they will continue to deliver core services and to fight for health and social justice.

A core principle of public health is “go where there is the greatest need.” At this time in our history, there is one need that rises above all. I strongly believe the biggest public health catastrophe of our time is the threat to women’s health and the health of our most vulnerable communities. For the last 100 years, no one has done more for women’s health than Planned Parenthood, and that’s where I need to be.

There is much that I have learned from my leadership in Baltimore that I will take to the work ahead. First, our North Star is our patients and communities. We serve everyone, with a focus on those who are most vulnerable. Second, it’s never an option to say, “it’s not my job” — we do everything that we can, because the people we serve need us now. Third, we do not waver to take on the big fights. Fighting for the public’s health means that we will always be on the right side of history.

Thank you for giving me to profound honor and privilege of serving as your Baltimore City health commissioner.

Dr. Leana S. Wen is the incoming president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Twitter: @DrLeanaWen.

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