In a surprise development, Mayor Vincent Gray on Tuesday announced he had appointed Dr. Saul Levin, a psychiatrist and senior deputy director at the D.C. Department of Health, as interim director of the DOH, making him the first known out gay person to serve as head of a city department of that size.
Gray said Levin would fill in for DOH Director Dr. Mohammad Akhter, who the mayor said is taking an unpaid leave of absence to become a member of the executive board of the city’s newly created Health Benefit Exchange Authority.
The Exchange Authority, created earlier this year by legislation passed by the City Council, is one of similar entities expected to be created by all 50 states under the federal Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health insurance reform measure.
“The appointment of Dr. Akhter to the Health Benefit Exchange Authority was a strategic decision by my administration,” Gray said in a statement released Tuesday. “Implementing the Affordable Care Act is one of my top priorities, and I am confident Dr. Akhter can lead the way in that effort.”
Levin could not be immediately reached for comment. The statement released by the mayor’s office announcing his appointment as interim director of the DOH makes no mention of his sexual orientation.
However, gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) told the Blade he has known Levin for more than 20 years and that Levin has been involved in LGBT-related AIDS work in various positions, including a stint as an official at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“At SAMHSA, Dr. Levin led the initiative to integrate primary care, substance abuse, mental health and HIV/AIDS response,” the statement from the mayor’s office said.
Graham said Levin also did volunteer work for the then Whitman-Walker Clinic at the time Graham served as the Clinic’s executive director in the 1980s and 1990s.
A native of South Africa, Levin received his medical degree in 1992 from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, according to the statement from the mayor’s office. It says he completed his residency in psychiatry at the University of California’s Davis Medical Center. He received a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1994, the statement says.
Prior to beginning his tenure at the D.C. DOH earlier this year, Levin served as Vice President for Science, Medicine, and Public Health at the American Medical Association, the mayor’s statement says.
“He’s extremely intelligent and he knows a lot about health policy,” Graham said. “My first reaction when I heard he was named to this position was I hate to see him leave APRA [the DOH’s Addiction, Prevention and Recovery Administration] because his expertise is in that area,” said Graham. “But Saul Levin has superb qualities to be the interim director of Health.”
LGBT and AIDS activists have praised Akhter for his record of support for HIV/AIDS-related services in the gay and transgender communities, which are among the groups hardest hit by HIV in the city.
Akhter, with Gray’s approval, appointed Dr. Gregory Pappas last year as head of the DOH’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease, and Tuberculosis Administration. Pappas is also gay.
D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), who’s gay and is chair of the Council committee that oversees the DOH, said he looks forward to working with Levin on health related issues.
“I expect Dr. Levin will bring his significant experiences and skills to the position of Interim Director and I look forward to working with him,” Catania told the Blade. “The Department of Health Director is an important position, one that both requires and deserves a permanent appointee sooner rather than later.”