As scientists and staff badged into the headquarters of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, the agency’s new director stood waiting for them, a smile on her face and her hand outstretched.
With news cameras rolling in the background and lobby music booming Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” Dr. Mandy Cohen introduced herself and asked over and over about the state of affairs at the CDC.
Although they’d just met, she asked directly, “What are you most worried about?”
“Thanks so much for actually talking to the people,” one scientist said as he shook her hand and headed to work, a smile on his face.
A day earlier, Cohen beamed as she was sworn in as the 20th director of the CDC. At the age of 44, the internist becomes the head of one of the most important public health agencies in the world – yet had she listened to a beloved professor while in medical school at Yale, she may never have made it this far.
Before graduating in 2005, Cohen went to Dr. Howard Forman to talk about her future.
“She had come with very specific ambitions,” said Forman, director of the MD/MBA program and professor of radiology and biomedical imaging in Yale’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies, of Economics, of Management and of Public Health.
“She saw a broken health care system, and she saw a role for federal and state government in fixing that,” he told CNN.
Forman knew firsthand how difficult health policy reform was, having just returned from a position as a health policy fellow in the US Senate. He also believed there were certain specific career paths for doctors, and the one she was considering didn’t fit the usual prescription.
“My view of the world then was, if it’s never been done, then it’s not likely to be done,” Forman said. “She had this expectation of basically getting out of medical school, doing a residency and immediately going to work in leadership roles in health care. I remember saying to her, ‘that’s just not going to happen.’”
But Cohen quickly proved Forman wrong.
While completing her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, she also got a masters in public health at Harvard University and immediately took a series of leadership jobs that gave her the opportunity to directly improve public health.
She didn’t do so for power or money, Forman said.
“There’s a phrase in Hebrew, ‘tikkun olam,’ which essentially means ‘repair the world,’ which is a worldview that says leave the world in a better place than you found it,” he said. “That sounds lofty, but it is also worthy, and that’s what I think drives her.”
Fixing a health system that leaves people behind
Cohen’s awareness of the challenges in the US health care system began at a young age.
She grew up in Long Island, New York, with two siblings. Their father, Marshall Krauthamer, worked as a junior high guidance counselor and special ed teacher in New York City. It was their mother, Susan Krauthamer, a nurse practitioner who worked in emergency medicine, who inspired Cohen’s goals.
Through her mother, Cohen saw what a positive impact health care professionals could have on people’s lives, but she also saw “cracks in our health care system which are often amplified in an emergency room,” as she wrote in a blog post for Aledade, a health care nonprofit where she recently worked.
The system, she wrote, “all too often left certain patients behind.”
While an undergrad at Cornell University, where she got a degree in policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology, she started thinking broadly about health.
It wasn’t just about medical care. A person’s health also depended on stable housing and work, whereas systemic racism made health worse.
“We need to think comprehensively about non-medical drivers of health,” Cohen told Cornell’s alumni magazine.
When she left Mass General in 2008, she served briefly at the Department of Veterans Affairs as deputy director of Comprehensive Women’s Health Services. The following year, she became executive director of Doctors for America, formerly known as Doctors for Obama, an association started by current US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy to help champion comprehensive health care reform and to get more doctors involved in supporting President Obama’s health reform agenda. In its current form, Doctors for America is a nonprofit that encourages doctors to speak out about health care reform.
“It’s never been more important for doctors to be engaged,” Cohen told the Yale School of Medicine Magazine in 2010.
During Cohen’s tenure, the group backed Medicaid expansion and legislation that makes health insurance affordable and accessible, as well as working to curb gun violence. Today, it advocates for ways to improve access to abortion, birth control and gender-affirming care.
Creating change from within
In 2010, Cohen left the nonprofit world to join the Obama administration, working in a variety of leadership roles at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). As a senior adviser to the CMS Innovation Center, she worked with stakeholders to come up with better payment and care delivery models. In other roles, she helped create policies that would help improve access to Obamacare.
In 2015, CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt made Cohen his chief of staff and then chief operating officer.
“She really did run the agency with me,” he told CNN.
Slavitt said he’s pretty good at spotting talent, and “I was more right than I ever could possibly have known” with Cohen.
“She’s just a super human being. She’s very communicative, very thoughtful, very smart, very diligent. And she has she just holds herself to an extremely high standard,” he said.