Dr. Mary T. Bassett Leaves the Health Department; Dr. Oxiris Barbot Becomes Acting Health Commissioner

Dr. Bassett’s tenure focused on health equity – under her leadership, the Health Department launched the Center for Health Equity; opened Neighborhood Health Action Centers; and partnered with community-based organizations to advance racial and social justice

As Commissioner, Dr. Bassett issued the Health Department’s first comprehensive report on the health of Latinos and the first report on health disparities among Asians

August 31, 2018 – The Health Department announced today the departure of Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett. Appointed to the position in January 2014, Dr. Bassett leaves her post to accept a position as the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Public Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, where she will assume the Directorship to the FXB Center of Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. Starting tomorrow, First Deputy Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who previously served as Health Commissioner in Baltimore, will become Acting Health Commissioner.

Dr. Bassett’s tenure at the Health Department is marked by her focus on health equity. In 2014, she launched the Center for Health Equity, which works to address the root causes of health inequities and expand access to health care across the city. In the same year, the agency issued Community Health Profiles to illustrate health disparities by neighborhood; among other findings, the profiles highlighted that life expectancy in Brownsville is 11 years shorter than in the Financial District.

In 2017, the Department unveiled three Neighborhood Health Action Centers – in East Harlem; Tremont, the Bronx; and Brownsville, Brooklyn – to be neighborhood hubs of social and health services, including primary care, mental health care. Dr. Bassett launched Race to Justice, the Health Department’s internal reform process for advancing racial equity and social justice; to date, Race to Justice has trained thousands of Health Department staff on implicit bias, racial anxiety, and stereotype threat. The Health Department also issued its first comprehensive report on the health of Latinos and the first report on health disparities among Asians. Diversity among people of African descent was highlighted in one of the agency’s data briefs.

Dr. Bassett has published academic studies and was one of the first doctors and public health professionals to argue that the medical profession had not done enough to address structural and institutional racism. In 2015, she penned “#BlackLivesMatter — A Challenge to the Medical and Public Health Communities” for the New England Journal of Medicine. A winner of the prestigious Calderone Prize, referred to by some as the “Nobel” for public health, Dr. Bassett used the occasion of her Calderone lecture titled, “Public Health Meets the Problem of the Color Line” to reflect health impact of white supremacy. Outspokenness on the need to address racism also prompted a TED talk (“Why your doctor should care about social justice”) and a comprehensive review of structural racism and health published in the Lancet.

As Commissioner, Dr. Bassett also focused on two major contributors to chronic disease: sodium and tobacco. Under her leadership, the Health Department launched the sodium warning label at chain restaurants, the first such rule in the nation. She also joined Mayor de Blasio and then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito on landmark tobacco legislation to raise the minimum prices for all tobacco products, cap the number of tobacco and e-cigarette retailers citywide, and ban the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies. As part of her effort to make nicotine dependence personal, Dr. Bassett shared her own story of quitting smoking after five tries. Since 2013, adult tobacco use fell from 16.1% to 13.4% in 2017.

During her tenure, Dr. Bassett oversaw the vast expansion of services for mental health, sexual health and substance use through three major initiatives under the de Blasio administration: ThriveNYC, Ending the Epidemic and HealingNYC. She has consistently urged the framing of mental health and substance use through a lens of compassion, recognizing that these are medical conditions, not flaws in character. In light of a driving public narrative that the opioid epidemic was largely new, White, suburban and affluent, Dr. Bassett urged people to remember that heroin has been an epidemic in low-income communities of color in the Bronx for decades. Through the Ending the Epidemic plan, the annual number of new HIV diagnoses in New York City has reached an all-time low. This was achieved by making the medication PrEP widely available at the City’s Sexual Health Clinics and the increase of immediate HIV treatment for those newly diagnosed with HIV.

“I thank Dr. Bassett for her commitment to our city,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams. “She has been a truly exemplary public servant. It is my sincere desire that our next city health commissioner builds on her work and makes deeper progress in advancing public health, particularly in embracing plant-based nutrition and other evidence-based approaches to improving wellness and combating historic inequities that put our children and families at risk.”

“Throughout her tenure, Commissioner Bassett consistently demonstrated leadership and dedication. Her focus on health inequity as it relates to race and ethnicity has strengthened and advanced the Health Department’s mission,” said Council Member Diana Ayala. “As the Chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction, it has been a pleasure to work with her. I wish her the best of luck as she embarks on her next chapter at Harvard University.”

Dr. Bassett has more than 30 years of experience in public health. After completing her medical training, she moved to Harare, Zimbabwe, where she served on the medical faculty at the University of Zimbabwe for 17 years. In that role, she developed a range of AIDS prevention interventions to address one of the world’s worst AIDS epidemics. In 2002, Dr. Bassett was appointed deputy commissioner of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the NYC Health Department, where she directed key initiatives, including bans on smoking and trans fats in restaurants and the requirement at chain restaurants to post calorie counts.

Incoming Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot was appointed First Deputy Commissioner in April 2014. Before returning to her native New York City, Dr. Barbot served as Commissioner of Health for Baltimore City from 2010 to 2014. She previously worked for the Health Department from 2003 to 2010, as the Medical Director for the Office of School Health. As First Deputy Commissioner, she oversaw a diverse portfolio that encompassed health equity, health policy and emergency operations. 

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