Three years ago, on the 25th anniversary of AIDS Walk Boston, AIDS Action Committee honored 25 people whose actions over the years were heroic in fighting the AIDS epidemic. One of those 25 was John Auerbach, who resigned this week as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH).
Auerbach was an easy pick. There’s no question that Massachusetts today is a national leader in the fight against AIDS in large part due to Auerbach’s efforts for the last 20-plus years. In the mid-80s at the height of the epidemic, he was at the state DPH and, working closely with then-Commissioner David Mulligan (whom AIDS Action also honored as a hero in the fight against AIDS), helped craft an innovative response to the epidemic that involved speaking frankly to and with the communities most impacted by the epidemic.
Auerbach fought to get health care coverage for the poor through Medicaid, helped create a community-based support system that ensured better health care outcomes for those in need of assistance, and insisted on evidence based behavioral interventions like needle exchange programs. Auerbach’s insistence during the early years of the epidemic to give a voice to those who were dying helped change hearts and minds.
Some details: Shortly after being named DPH Commissioner in 2007, Auerbach was tasked with reversing years of neglect to HIV/AIDS prevention and education under the Romney administration. There was little support under Romney for the Pharmacy Access Law, a key policy goal of AIDS Action’s, which permits over-the-counter sales of syringes. The bill had been vetoed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a veto that lawmakers easily overrode. Auerbach immediately put key provisions of the law in place. Meanwhile, outreach materials aimed at gay and bisexual men were watered down and sexuality education focused on abstinence-only programming.
Throughout his tenure, Auerbach did not shy away from somewhat controversial solutions if they were going to yield results. Toward that end, he also focused on the public health needs of LGBT people, releasing a report in 2009 detailing the health disparities faced by LGBT people versus the rest of the population. He also supported programs like AIDS Action’s The MALE Center, which engages in highly specialized outreach and education about HIV to gay and bisexual men. And, in a marked shift from DPH policies under the Romney Administration, Auerbach convened a forum just months after he became Commissioner focusing on the health needs of LGBT youth.
Auerbach’s methodical, science-based approach to prevention is continuing to pay off. Since 1999, new diagnoses of HIV have declined 54 percent in Massachusetts. Not only has the state saved thousands of lives, but it will save more than $2 billion in health care costs.
That’s public health at its best, and it’s John Auerbach’s legacy.