Biden taps former North Carolina health official Mandy Cohen as new director of CDC

President Joe Biden announced last week his intent to appoint physician Mandy Cohen as the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the initial response by healthcare industry organizations has been largely positive.

Outgoing CDC director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., is scheduled to leave the job June 30, and Cohen can begin immediately, since the position won’t become one that necessitates Senate approval until January 2025.

Cohen currently serves as the executive vice president at Aledade and the CEO of Aledade Care Solution. The companies focus on helping to improve the care offered at independent primary care practices, clinics and health centers through a value-based model.

Margaret A. Murray, CEO of the Association for Community Affiliated Plans, which represents about 75 safety net health plans, praised Cohen’s appointment in an email to Fierce Healthcare. “Mandy Cohen has a long track record of tackling big challenges and contributing to significant transformation of our health care system,” said Murray. “This includes her work in implementing the Affordable Care Act, the expansion of North Carolina’s Medicaid program and the introduction of managed care into the same program. We congratulate Dr. Cohen on her new role.”

profile photo of Mandy Cohen, M.D.

Cohen comes to the job after serving as secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services from 2017 to 2022. Before that, she held several positions with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), including chief operations officer (2015 to 2017), chief of staff (2015 to 2017), and acting director of the CMS’s Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (2014 to 2015).

Carlos del Rio, M.D., president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and Michelle Cespedes, M.D., chairperson of the HIV Medicine Association, issued a joint statement saying that “experts in infectious diseases nationwide look forward to Dr. Cohen’s leadership in addressing serious public health challenges, including the growing crisis of antimicrobial resistance, increased frequency of infectious outbreaks, ending HIV as an epidemic, the need for evidence-based approaches to public health and a strong public health workforce and infrastructure.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) issued a joint statement from David Skorton, the organization’s president and CEO, and Danielle Turnipseed, its chief public policy officer.

“The AAMC worked closely with Dr. Cohen when she was chief operating officer and chief of staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and she brings a deep understanding of the healthcare sector and the critical role academic medical centers and teaching hospitals play in health care and public health,” Skorton and Turnipseed said. “With a firm grasp on the most pressing public health issues facing our nation, Dr. Cohen has been recognized as a national leader for her expertise and execution. She is well-positioned to lead the country through challenging times in public health that require precision, experience, diplomacy and an innovative spirit.”

They said that during her stint at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Cohen worked hard to improve access to care for patients, in part by addressing the social determinants of health as part of a holistic approach to improving outcomes.

“The CDC has been a critical partner to the academic medicine community as we work together to improve coordination between the field of public health and medical schools, teaching hospitals, and health systems, and we are confident that Dr. Cohen will continue to champion this partnership,” Skorton and Turnipseed said.

They also thanked Walensky for her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic in not only dealing with SARS-CoV-2, but also enacting what they described as positive public health reforms during such a challenging time.

Walensky, M.D., issued a statement congratulating Cohen, and describing her as “a respected public health leader who helped North Carolina successfully navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and has dedicated her career to improving health outcomes for all Americans.”

Walensky added that Cohen’s experience in North Carolina will help the CDC build on the lessons learned during the pandemic that will hopefully better prepare it for the next such occurrence.

In a tweet, Farzad Mostashari, M.D., founder and CEO of Aledade, also said Cohen, noting that she is exceptional at two things key to CDC success: “executive decision-making, transparency, and trust and connecting public health with health care.”

The White House announcement said that Cohen transformed the North Carolina Medicaid program, steering it through expansion, and her backing of “whole person health” which led to the creation of NCCARE360.

However, some Republicans have voiced opposition to Cohen’s appointment to lead the CDC.

In a letter to Biden earlier this month in response to news reports about Cohen’s appointment, 28 Republicans said the President should withdraw his “radical CDC Director pick.”

“Dr. Cohen is unfit for the position. Throughout her career, Dr. Cohen has politicized science, disregarded civil liberties, and spread misinformation about the efficacy and necessity of COVID vaccinations and the necessity of masks, during her time as the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. She also has a history of engaging in partisan left-wing politics,” the group of Republicans wrote.

Kevin Kavanagh, M.D., the president and founder of the patient advocacy organization, Health Watch USA and who has sometimes been critical of the agency’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, said that the change in CDC leadership “represents an opportunity for the CDC to head in a new direction. Currently a number of very important policies are being formulated. For example: At a minimum the use of N95 masks for all airborne pathogens needs to be recommended for healthcare staff and enhanced barrier precautions for nursing homes should only be undertaken in clinical trials.”

Kavanagh also called for a strengthening of nursing home guidelines, and residents infected by a dangerous pathogen need to be separated from the rest of the facilities’ residents.

“Advisory committees need to have greater transparency with public comments occurring before not after votes and in addition all meetings should be posted online for later viewing. Most importantly, frontline workers, patients, industrial hygienists, occupational scientists, aerosol scientists and worker unions need to have a voting seat at the table with equal representation as industry voices have.”