Hundreds of Annual Meeting participants attended yesterday session featuring, from left to right, former CDC directors David Satcher, Jeffrey Koplan and Julie Gerberding as well as current CDC Director Tom Frieden and APHA's Georges Benjamin. Photo by Jim Ezell/courtesy EZ Event Photography

Hundreds of Annual Meeting participants attended yesterday’s session featuring, from left to right, former CDC directors David Satcher, Jeffrey Koplan and Julie Gerberding as well as current CDC Director Tom Frieden and APHA’s Georges Benjamin. Photo by Jim Ezell/courtesy EZ Event Photography

I loved the feeling of yesterday’s Monday General Session in Denver. Where else could you find APHA’s executive director sitting down for a chummy chat with the current and three former directors of “the nation’s health department” as if they had all gathered in his living room and were getting ready to watch a World Series game on TV?

First, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher likened heading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to running a relay race.

“It’s really critical that you not drop that baton,” said Satcher, who headed the agency from 1993-1998 and oversaw the establishment of what is now the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB, among other accomplishments. “CDC deals with some of the most critical issues the world faces in terms of health…What impressed me was the fact that they have a deep caring about people all over the world.”

Of his time at the CDC, Satcher said, “It was a very rich experience, and I have tremendous regard for my colleagues here on this stage.”

Those colleagues were current CDC Director Tom Frieden and former directors Julie Gerberding and Jeffrey Koplan. The warmth they feel for each other and APHA’s Georges Benjamin was obvious during yesterday’s “The CDC: Disease Detectives to the World” session.

Koplan got a laugh from the session audience when he said he took the leadership relay baton from Satcher and handed it off to Gerberding.

“I may have bounced it a couple of times, but I didn’t lose it along the way,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s an incredible privilege to be able to be a director of CDC…

It’s always been a fantastic group of people dedicated to the job. It’s a very special place.”

Benjamin asked the CDC directors what they would say to the nation’s new president if they had five minutes to do so after next week’s election.

“I would recommend full funding of the prevention agenda,” Satcher said.

Gerberding said she would highlight the president’s ability to make a difference using the three “levers” of infrastructure, schools and businesses. Koplan would press for a change in the health system.

“Health care reform hasn’t even begun,” he said. “We’ve had health insurance reform, but we need health care reform.” That would include universal coverage and a focus on health outcomes as a measure of success, he said.

“Jeff’s point that health care has to be focused on health, this is really a major challenge,” Frieden said. “It’s not easy to turn around. The potential is there to make a big difference.”

How can our nation’s leaders make that big difference? Frieden summed it up pretty well.

“I think the bottom line here is that public health is a best buy,” Frieden said to enthusiastic applause. “You could save lives, you could save money, and if you don’t invest in it, you’re going to regret it.”

Let’s hope our new president listens to that advice.

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