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Mandy Cohen: From Yale Medical Student to CDC Director

June 20, 2023
by Robert Forman

From the Start, Her Goal Has Been to Do Big Things

On June 16, President Biden announced that Mandy Cohen, MD ’05, MPH, is his choice to be the next director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, succeeding Rochelle Walensky, MD, after Walensky steps down on June 30.

From the time she was a student at Yale School of Medicine, graduating in 2005, Cohen has been determined to make a mark on health care policy. She has said, “I always knew I wanted to have an impact at scale.” Howard Forman, MD, MBA, professor of radiology & biomedical imaging, of public health (health policy), and of economics at Yale, spoke with us. He says he sensed her drive when he was one of Cohen’s faculty advisors, and has followed her achievements ever since.

HOWARD FORMAN: When she was a student, she had an interest in health policy and met with me to talk about what would be the features of her education while at Yale and after Yale that might get her on a path to being able to have an impact on health care delivery and health equity in the future … What I recall is that she recognized that there were huge problems in our health care delivery system and recognized that a clinician could play a critical role in helping to improve them and that she wanted to be just that clinician, and that she was not—as I recall—interested in the more well-trod path of becoming an academic or becoming a hospital administrator, but was much more interested in working within government systems, to try to improve health and health equity … She has pursued a path that, quite frankly, I would have thought was impossible at the time, and she’s succeeded at it exceptionally well.

Cohen’s path has included moving to Washington after her medical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital to work for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, becoming a founding member of the grassroots organization Doctors for Obama [later renamed Doctors for America], and then working in the Obama administration, where she was instrumental in implementing details of the Affordable Care Act. From 2017 to 2021, she served as secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, a tenure during which she needed to deal with the COVID-19 health emergency. Forman admires the job she did in difficult political circumstances.

FORMAN: She and I have had subsequent conversations about how being able to have an impact requires understanding every stakeholder, understanding all the people involved. And what has made her such a force is she has worked with the elected representatives in the statehouse of North Carolina to get Medicaid expansion. It only just happened in North Carolina, well after her departure from her leadership role, but nobody questions that Mandy Cohen's efforts during her years of service were instrumental in making that happen and getting Republicans to vote for that. So Mandy knows how to work with elected officials, Mandy knows how to work within large institutions, like Health and Human Services of the United States and Health and Human Services of the state of North Carolina. She understands that for a lot of health care, the policy occurs at the state level, not at the federal level. She's done all of that.

She also has maintained close ties with Yale School of Medicine, offering advice to students and faculty members and returning to speak on campus—at Forman’s invitation—on numerous occasions.

FORMAN: She's just a great speaker. She's enthusiastic in talking to our students. She inspires people … I think she can teach students an awful lot and she does a great job at that and that's the sort of thing she's talked about when she's come here. She talks about her experience in the White House, talks about her experience with CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services], talks about her experience with Doctors for America, talks about her experience with the Department of Health and Human Services in North Carolina. She has talked about the pandemic. She has an incredible portfolio of meaningful accomplishments at each stop along her journey.

In March 2022, Cohen appeared on the Health & Veritas podcast, produced at Yale and hosted by Forman and Harlan Krumholz, MD, SM, Harold H. Hines Professor of Medicine (Cardiology). On the podcast, Cohen said, “[T]he North Star for me is how do we get health for folks? Not health care, I’m not interested in just buying health care. I want to buy health. I want grandparents to be able to run around with their grandkids. I want folks to live long, productive, fruitful lives that are happy and healthy. And that’s mental health, physical health, emotional health, all of that.”

If the demands on a CDC director’s time permit, Cohen plans to return to speak at Yale School of Medicine during a previously scheduled visit on October 5 and 6. Forman predicts that she will be an outstanding CDC director.

FORMAN: I think she'll do extremely well. First of all, you know, we all hope to learn from mistakes and Mandy understands how to learn from other people's mistakes, She is a keen witness to what works and what doesn't work. She's not the person who has to put her own hand in the fire to know the fire is hot. And so I think she's walking into an organization that is desperate for certain types of reform, that demands transparency. Mandy has always been transparent. And I think that she will bring a new and refreshing air to the CDC.

Submitted by Robert Forman on June 20, 2023