Alumni Day 2014

Graduates Reunite for Day With Friends, Spirited Discussion on Health Care

The Affordable Care Act is now the law of the land, but will this landmark legislation translate into better health and health care for millions of Americans?

This year’s Yale School of Public Health Alumni Day featured a panel discussion on the pros and the cons of the landmark reform and its members agreed that the legislation redefines the social contract, but that it was not perfect and issues with implementation and delivery are likely to continue.

Scores of alumni gathered at the New Haven Lawn Clun on September 19 for a day that featured spirited discussion on the future health care, but also the chance to reconnect with old friends and former classmates.

“Alumni day is one of the highlights of the school calendar,” said Martin Klein, associate dean for development and external affairs. “We honor some of our most distinguished alumni, provide speakers on a compelling public health topic, and serve as a meeting place for alumni to reengage with each other and to make new personal and professional connections.” 

As part of the morning’s discussion, keynote speaker Christopher F. Koller, president of the Milbank Memorial Fund, an endowed foundation that seeks to improve health care, said the ACA was absolutely the right thing to do.

It seeks nothing less than to improve health and avoid premature death. “This is where our focus ought to be,” he said.

The program offers multiple opportunities to improve health, including expanding health care coverage to millions of more people, transforming primary care and moving more money into this area, increasing the accountability of larger provider groups, encouraging state-based innovation models and allowing the total costs of care to be accurately measured.

“This is our opportunity to improve population health,” Koller said. “We got an awful lot out of this [legislation].”

A panel discussion moderated by Zack Cooper, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health, critiqued the legislation’s roll out and predictions of how it will fare going forth.

Cooper said that public distrust over the ACA persists, as well as confusion about what it does and does not do.

“It’s messy and it’s going to take awhile for the dust to settle,” he said.  “We’re in the middle of a long journey.”

Panelist Sarah Dash, M.P.H. ’01, vice president of the Alliance for Health Reform and a former policy aide to U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, said that the ACA’s passage has already induced some states, such as West Virginia, to expand Medicaid coverage. The move is huge, and would not have happened otherwise.

Still, she said why the ACA is needlessly complicated, especially in the eyes of average consumers. This has led to misunderstandings and misperceptions amongst the public. She noted that it took her five hours to select a coverage plan offered by the ACA, and she is immersed in the details. “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” Dash said.

Panelist Robert Bazell, an adjunct professor at Yale and a former health correspondent for NBC News, said that President Barack Obama and his administration did an poor job of selling the new law to the public and the media, in turn, did a bad job reporting it.

“It was almost like they [the administration] were embarrassed about it,” Bazell said.

When asked if the ACA would result in all states expanding Medicaid by 2020, panelists Peter Van Loon, executive director of Access Health Exchange Solutions in Connecticut, and Bazell said there was no way to know. Dash predicted that many states will grow Medicaid, but probably not all.

“There’s always Texas,” she said to the laughter from the audience.

Following the panel discussion, some of the school’s leading graduates were honored for their work in public health. The Distinguished Alumni Award was presented to Nirav Shah, M.P.H. ’98, M.D. ’98, who recently served as commissioner of health in New York state and is now senior vice president and COO for clinical operations for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California.

The Award for Excellence in Public Health was presented to Kevin Nelson, M.P.H. ’92, who works as a health care executive.

Gretchen Van Wye, Ph.D. ’04, received the Eric W. Mood New Professionals Award for her work at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.  Van Wye cited the school as a factor in her professional success.

“Yale has always mentored and taken care of me,” she said.