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The Podium

The legacy of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach

On Sept. 17, John Auerbach submitted his resignation as the Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health. We have lost a great leader.

Auerbach accepted a position at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, where he will serve as a professor of practice and director of the Urban Health Research Institute.

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Auerbach resigned because he held himself accountable and responsible as the commissioner for alleged actions that took place in a crime laboratory far distant and removed from the mission of public health. He recognized the public expectation that leaders must accept accountability and responsibility, even in circumstances beyond their reasonable control.

Auerbach’s resignation shows the strength of his integrity as a public health professional and as a person. Although Auerbach had no direct oversight of the crime laboratory chemist, he chose to demonstrate his personal commitment to the public’s trust.

His resignation provides us with a large dose of reality. It proves just how difficult it is for a leader to achieve long-term goals when you are constantly struggling with budgets and responding to an often chaotic legislative process.

His recent challenges as public health commissioner also highlight the complexity of leading an organization with over 3000 employees, four public hospitals, 17 laboratories, and over 100 different programs. As any leader of a large organization can attest, much can occur that is far beyond the control of one person. And because we know Auerbach so well, we know that those alleged actions have deeply wounded him and the many committed professionals at the Department of Public Health. A central tenet of public health is social justice, a concept built on the equality and dignity of every human being. The idea that injustice might have been done within an organization built on helping the public defies description for people like Auerbach who lived their lives in service to others.

Public health is a noble public service. It is difficult and challenging. Despite this, Auerbach has delivered. He delivered on protecting the Commonwealth from the first flu pandemic in 40 years, with one of the highest per capita immunization rate of any state. He delivered through “Mass in Motion,” a statewide campaign to combat the obesity epidemic. He delivered by adopting strict school lunch nutrition standards and by helping restrict youth access to tobacco products.

Over the last decade his work has helped Massachusetts reduce new HIV infections by more than 54 percent. Throughout his career he has championed innovative programs to prevent and treat substance abuse and limit the impact that addiction has on individuals, families and communities. He made our HIV program the envy of the nation.

As president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, he delivered by challenging his fellow health officials to focus their attention on health equity issues in their states — so that skin color or net worth will no longer be major determinants of anyone’s health. This challenge led to the adoption of many innovative state programs focused on fairness and equity in public health.

At the local level, he was the model public health servant. Mayor Tom Menino of Boston said the day Auerbach announced his resignation: “John Auerbach is one of the best municipal leaders I have ever known. His knowledge of public health issues along with his deep compassion for people made our Boston Public Health Commission a model for efficiency and quality service delivery.”

Auerbach’s departure will be a great loss to the state and to public health. He is a wonderful listener and for many years he responded to the Commonwealth’s needs with integrity and compassion. Auerbach put his mind, time, energy, and heart on the line for public health. We sincerely thank him for his sacrifices. We will all miss his friendship and leadership, but we know he will continue his service in public health, and we will be better off because of it.

David Mulligan is former state commissioner of public health. Georges Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association. Paul Jarris is executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
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