HHS’ Admiral Rachel Levine: Managing Her History-Making Role While Focused on the Nation’s Health

With most of the country suffering through a sweltering heat wave, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services has found the right time to unveil its nationwide Heat and Health Index (HHI).

“Conversations on Health Care” learned all about it from Admiral Rachel Levine, M.D., the department’s assistant secretary for health. “We are seeing heat-related injury and health impacts globally,” says Levine, particularly in vulnerable populations, such as children, seniors and people who work outside.

HHI combines historic temperature data and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) data on heat-related emergency responses from the past three years, as well as data on community characteristics, including pre-existing health conditions, socio-demographic information, and characteristics of the natural and built environment, to provide a final heat and health index ranking by ZIP code.

Levine is used to being in the hot seat on a variety of issues, from worries about bird flu to the latest on Long COVID. During June, she helped lead efforts to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride, as the nation’s highest-ranking openly transgender official.

Hosts Mark Masselli and Margaret Flinter, well aware that Levine serves at the president's pleasure, asked her about future plans. She said she would absolutely be willing to go through another intense Senate confirmation process depending on what happens on Election Day. “I firmly believe in the Biden-Harris Administration and the principles they advocate for and represent.”


How Could Medical Racism Fuel Soaring Black Youth Suicide Rate? Answers and Solutions

Black children ages 5 to 12 are twice as likely to die by suicide as their white counterparts, and the rate of suicides among Black teens is rising faster than any other racial/ethnic group.

Those statistics are alarming to most people, but they’re not surprising to Yale Child Study Center (YCSC) Chief Resident and Child Psychiatry Fellow Dr. Amanda J. Calhoun.

“Experiences of anti-Black racism affect kids before they are even born,” says Dr. Calhoun.

The stress of anti-Black racism on Black mothers, including experiencing inferior care by health care providers, has been linked to low birthweight babies, putting Black infants at greater risk for developing depression and other mental health disorders.

In addition, racist beliefs start to become ingrained in children as young as four years old, which means that Black children start to experience racism from their peers and teachers as early as preschool.

“It’s not the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s the preschool-to-prison pipeline,” says Calhoun. Black children are more likely to be suspended from or arrested in school than their peers.

When they seek help, Black children are the most likely to be physically restrained in emergency departments. And they are more likely to be diagnosed with disruptive mood disorders than white children with comparable symptomatology.

“You have people who are traumatized, who are being traumatized, by people who are supposed to help them,” says Dr. Tichianaa Armah, Chief Psychiatry Officer and Vice President of Behavioral Health at Community Health Center, Inc.

“Of course, they are going to have poor mental health outcomes,” says Dr. Calhoun.

Dr. Armah and Dr. Calhoun tell “Conversations on Health Care” hosts Mark Masselli and Margaret Flinter that they have seen the effects of this early trauma up close in their work and are exploring what measures can be taken to protect young Black lives.

Dr. Calhoun is leading a Black Youth Mental Health Clinical Case Conference Series at Yale University where experts will weigh in on complex clinical cases involving Black youth presented by YCSC trainees, please learn more here:

But she is doing things a bit differently. “In a typical case conference, we talk about the problematic behavior of patients,” says Dr. Calhoun. None that she has seen have asked “What if one of the primary causes that has led to the lapses in care of this Black child is the medical racism of the team?” 


Can Health Care Policy Take a Page from Recent Bipartisan Efforts?

In the wake of recent bipartisan policy wins in Washington, can health care policy follow suit?

Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), spoke with hosts Mark Masselli and Margaret Flinter about how the best solutions emerge from a solid understanding of the issues and the eventual give-and-take of political opponents.

For example, The Milbank Memorial Fund’s 2024 Scorecard Report of The Health of U.S. Primary Care declared that the state of “primary care is in crisis.” The report made clear the systemic lack of support for primary care is harming people’s health and weakening the U.S. health system.

Dr. Parekh agrees the issue is dire. “As a primary care physician…this is the most important health care issue in America,” he says. “A strong primary care system needs to be the foundation of our health care system. So much of what is ailing us is because we haven’t put in the resources into our primary care system infrastructure.”

How can a bipartisan approach help?

Dr. Parekh points to the recent effort by the BPC to relaunch the Congressional House Primary Care Caucus, which had been dormant for years. They began by identifying bipartisan co-chairs to lead the caucus (two Democrats and two Republicans) who will be educating members about the importance of primary care before they begin to discuss policy solutions.

Dr. Parekh’s interview this week on “Conversations on Health Care” highlights how ensuring that both parties are working together from the beginning on an issue lays the foundation for mutual understanding and agreement down the line.