Dr. Saul Levin, the newly appointed interim director of the D.C. Department of Health, says his mission during his expected one-year tenure as head of the department is to educate the city’s diverse communities, including the LGBT community, about the wide range of services DOH offers to keep people healthy.
“One of the things I would like to put on the table is each and every one of us working here essentially comes from the community,” he told the Blade in an interview in his office. “My vision is that every one of us at some time is out in the community doing service work that really shows we are out there for the community.”
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray on July 17 announced he had appointed Levin, a psychiatrist and senior deputy director of the DOH, as interim director, making him the first known out gay person to serve as head of a city department of that size.
A DOH spokesperson said the department has about 800 employees and a budget of about $268 million.
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 head of the executive board of the city’s newly created Health Benefit Exchange Authority, which is part of the Obama administration’s health insurance reform program.
In his role as senior deputy director of the DOH, Levin was in charge of the department’s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration, which operates the city’s programs to combat drug and alcohol abuse. He is expected to return to that post if Akhter resumes his role as DOH director.
A native of South Africa, Levin received his medical degree at a leading medical school in Johannesburg before completing his residency in psychiatry at the University of California’s Davis Medical Center.
Levin then joined the staff of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and later became coordinator of a special program within the department’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The program integrated primary care, substance abuse, mental health and HIV/AIDS as part of an effort to improve treatment and care for people with both medical and substance abuse problems.
From there Levin returned to school, receiving a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1994. Upon completion of his studies he started a health care consulting company for which he served as president for the next 10 years.
He said around 2004 he accepted an offer to become president and CEO of Medical Education for South African Blacks, a U.S.-based anti-apartheid educational trust that had provided scholarships to South African blacks prior to the end of country’s apartheid government in 1994.
Levin said leaders of the organization continued its work in the years following the apartheid system to ensure that black candidates would have the opportunity to enter jobs in the medical profession before improved educational institutions had been established in the country.
“It educated one-third of all black doctors up until six years ago,” he said. “It gave out 11,000 grants. It was truly about how someone can make a difference.”
Prior to coming to the D.C. DOH, earlier this year Levin served as vice president of the American Medical Association for Science, Medicine, and Public Health.
Levin said his involvement in AIDS-related work and the gay community began in the early 1980s during his medical school years in South Africa, when he helped to open the country’s first hospice for people dying of what was then known as “wasting disease.”
“You would just have these people who would waste away,” he said. “Their immune system would just go to pieces. So I got very involved in that way.”
Noting that he came out as gay in South Africa, Levin added, “In some ways today when you look at South Africa they have a huge problem both in the African community as well as in the white gay community” concerning AIDS. “Had they begun to see the early warning signs they could have really maybe have begun to do something a little differently to address the problem.”
Levin said the DOH’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Administration (HAHSTA) is redoubling its HIV prevention efforts directed toward black men in D.C., both gay and straight, who have the highest infection rate among all the groups at risk for HIV.
He noted that HAHSTA is headed by Dr. Greg Pappas, a gay physician with extensive experience in AIDS-related medicine and public health.
“I would say this,” Levin said in discussing the city’s programs to combat AIDS for all at-risk groups, including the gay men. “We would go anywhere and everywhere to try to get education and services to those who need it. Treatment is prevention. Prevention is treatment.”
His background in substance abuse issues and mental health has made him especially aware of substance abuse issues affecting the LGBT community, Levin said.
“I used to have a research project when I had my company, and NIH wanted me to try to get to the guys in the gym, the gay gyms,” he said. “They were exercise fanatics and the next thing I would see was photos of them out at all these parties where crystal meth and ecstasy – you name it – was used.
“And I would try to say why is it that you have so divorced yourself from your healthy bodies? You spend a lot of your life in the gym and yet you are still doing this to yourself,” he said. “Addiction is just like diabetes, hypertension or HIV. It’s a chronic relapsing treatable disease.”
Levin added that DOH offers a “full choice” treatment program for people with substance abuse problems that he highly recommends.
“Any LGBT person can come to our assistance center at 51 N St.,” he said. “It’s at the corner of First Street and N streets in Northeast. You go in there – anyone can walk in. You will be evaluated. And we will then say this is the level of care you will need,” Levin said.
“If you don’t have insurance, we will pay for it. And you will choose the program you go to.”
When told of how the recent suicide of a popular D.C. gay bartender shocked friends and co-workers, who perceived the bartender as happy and upbeat, Levin said suicide is a “difficult” issue to address.
“Someone who is clearly getting to the point of that kind of depression needs help,” he said. “Your friends can help you. Your friends and your support system and your co-workers – when you see someone becoming more depressed, not being as energetic, withdrawing from the usual things they love to do – you’ve got to address the issue,” he said.
“You know your family,” he said. “You know your partners…People do give signs when they’re thinking of suicide. You should address it.”