Healthy Choices

Bush-era health care chief speaks with journalists

This week, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan dropped in on the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists in Denver to share the deep wisdom that comes with decades in public health – and a story or two.

Back in 1989, Sullivan noted, the deadly and mysterious disease of AIDS was ravaging communities.

That same year, Sullivan signed on as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for President George H. W. Bush.

Under Sullivan’s guidance, the Bush administration poured hundreds of millions of public health dollars into battling and researching AIDS.

Today, Sullivan pointed out, the disease is no longer mysterious.

And it’s no longer deadly.

“Now we understand how this virus works,” Sullivan said. “That’s a return on investment.

“Fast-forward to today, and we see this is a chronic disease, is not a fatal disease any more,” Sullivan told the gathering of about 500 health journalists.

“The story of AIDS is one of the best stories of change in the last couple of decades,” he said.

Sullivan, who referred to himself jokingly as “the only pigmented cabinet secretary” at the time, also gave the audience a heads-up to how crucial it will be to bridge the gap of disparities in the health status of ethnic minorities.

Stubborn differences exist, he said, because of an historic lack of access to health care and a lack of trust of the medical establishment.

“What we need to focus on today is that we are undergoing rapid ethnic changes in the population right now,” he said, as minorities are poised to take majority status nationwide.

“From the standpoint of investing in our future as a nation, we need to make sure all of these people are healthy.”

Such is the perspective of a man in his eighth decade who, with the exception of his tenure as HHS from 1989 to 1993, served as president of Morehouse School of Medicine for more than 20 years.