A National
By Tom Linder


rowing up on Chicago’s South Side, Georges Benjamin (BIOL ’73) dreamed of a career in science.

“I wanted to be a scientist, whatever that was,” says Benjamin. “I lived in the Museum of Science and Industry as my second home.”

A self-described precocious kid, Benjamin started his career in medicine cleaning glass in labs and is now one of the most widely respected executives in health care. He has been the chief of emergency medicine at the United States Army’s premier medical center, served as a city commissioner and a state secretary of health, and is now the head of a widely respected health advocacy nonprofit.

Still, it wasn’t until a friend suggested that he consider medical school so he could get a better background in science that he even considered a career in medicine.

“I went to medical school to get a basic science background and absolutely fell in love with clinical medicine,” Benjamin says.

While his interest in medicine was new, Benjamin’s devotion to public service was quite familiar: he had spent four years in ROTC in high school and two years at Illinois Tech.

It was also through the military that Benjamin began his career in medicine, serving as a resident in internal medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The role included a fair amount of training in emergency medicine, which ultimately led him to being stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in 1983.

Benjamin’s experience at Walter Reed has, time and again, led him back to public service after leaving the army, including serving as the commissioner of health and as interim emergency medical services director for Washington, D.C., before he was appointed as deputy secretary for health—and later secretary for health—for the state of Maryland.

“They were the most interesting jobs I’ve had,” Benjamin says. “It was really challenging work. We saw a full range of new diseases that we had to address. For an ER doc, every day was a new adventure.”

Setting public policy for Maryland led to a natural transition into a position that he holds to this day: executive director of the American Public Health Association, which he took on in 2002.

Leading a national public-health advocacy nonprofit has come with its fair share of challenges, the biggest of which came in 2020 with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I went to medical school to get a basic science background and absolutely fell in love with clinical medicine.”
—Georges Benjamin

“Every year, we put about five or six priorities in place,” says Benjamin. “Those are pretty much the same: pushing funding for public health, reducing gun violence, addressing climate change, women’s reproductive health rights. But we always leave one little spot for the unknown issue of the year. Of course, in 2020, that turned out to be COVID.”

From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Benjamin led the organization as it advised the White House, the U.S. Congress, and public officials.

“We spent a fair amount of time working with other organizations and directly with communities encouraging people to get tested, get vaccinated,” says Benjamin. “We were strong supporters of the administration’s efforts to have Operation Warp Speed move mRNA technology along.”

Benjamin also points to the organization’s help in passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010 as a groundbreaking accomplishment.

“When the ACA was going through Congress, we banged on the doors of members of Congress. We were strong advocates not just for getting the bill passed, but we were big advocates for helping to expand it in other states—as well as maintaining it,” says Benjamin.

Moving forward, Benjamin and the American Public Health Association are still pushing for reform in the health care system to address shortcomings that were exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He envisions a system that’s better prepared to rapidly identify new threats and to respond accordingly with a consensus from the medical community. Technological barriers within the medical industry are a crucial aspect that he believes need to be addressed.

“During COVID, we were writing information down with a pen and ink and sending it around by fax machine,” says Benjamin. “You could order a pizza remotely and get it delivered by Uber, but you couldn’t move an EKG across the street.”

Above all, Benjamin emphasizes that public health will always be a team sport. A central theme in his work is involving the public in decision-making, both in creating infrastructure and shaping policy.

It’s clear that Benjamin made an impact.

He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and a fellow emeritus of the American College of Emergency Physicians. For 10 straight years, beginning in 2007, Benjamin was named as one the 100 most influential people in health care, and he has been named one of the top 25 minority executives in health care three times by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

“As I look back, I’ve got a lot of young people that I have mentored that are now in leadership positions elsewhere,” says Benjamin. “And I run into them all the time. I’ll go in to meet someone, and suddenly they’re the head of this office at the federal government.”

“Georges never fails to provide wise counsel,” says Monica Feit, one of those mentees.

Feit first worked with Benjamin in 2009 as the APHA government fellow, where she worked on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions while it crafted the ACA. She is now the executive director of the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“He is politically savvy and unflappable in challenging situations. He is a giant in the field of public health policy,” she says, adding that Benjamin is “a straight shooter, a thoughtful mentor, and because he’s had such a rich professional history, a terrific storyteller.”

As for the future, Benjamin is content in his role at the American Public Health Association, where he’ll begin his 22nd year in December.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t ready for another challenge, should it present itself.

“I’m not anywhere ready to retire,” Benjamin says. “I would love to be CEO of the American Red Cross. As an ER doctor, running the nation’s most important disaster response agency would really be kind of neat. Or secretary of health and human services. Obviously, I would love to be the nation’s chief health strategist through the governmental lens.

“Who knows what else will be in my future?”●

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