Dr. Herminia Palacio has worn several hats throughout her lengthy career, each of them preparing her for her present role as New York’s Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services.
The 55-year-old cubana’s first job was as a busser, which taught her to take pride in her work – whatever it might be. She kept that attitude later as a physician in New York; coordinating health services for evacuees of Hurricane Katrina as Executive Director of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services in Texas; combatting HIV/AIDS in San Francisco as the Senior Policy Adviser for the city's Department of Public Health; developing and implementing new health leadership programs as the Director of Advancing Change Leadership at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and teaching policy and public health at multiple colleges and universities.
If that sounds like a lot (it is!), just wait till you hear all the departments Palacio overseas as deputy mayor: the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NYC Health + Hospitals, Human Resources Administration, Department of Homeless Services, Administration for Children's Services, Office of Chief Medical Examiner, Office to Combat Domestic Violence and Office of Food Policy.
Exhausted yet? Imagine actually having to get the jobs done.
The Bronx-born Palacio, also the first Afro-Latina to hold a position as deputy mayor in the city of New York, talked with us about her day-to-day, why she has always strived to serve the most vulnerable through public health, why it’s important for Afro-Latinas to see themselves in positions of power and much more.
You have extensive experience in public health. When did you first realize you wanted to be involved in this work and what do you think inspired that?
I would say the unifying theme throughout my career, which is something that sounds trite but isn’t, is wanting to help people. I also loved biology, so medicine seemed like the right place. I wanted to practice in urban, underserved communities, and I got to fulfill that dream as a doctor here in New York. As I was taking care of this population, I realized I could make a difference, but I wanted to see what other ways to impact health. So I finished my residency and went back to school to get my master’s in public health. That was a life-changing moment. It got me to think of health and community in ways I didn’t as a clinician with individual patients, which I loved, but I wanted to be able to make a bigger difference.
You’ve been Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services in New York City for a little more than a year now. Tell me, what does your day-to-day look like in this position?
The one predictable thing about my days is that they are unpredictable. There’s a lot of thinking about policy and what kinds of initiatives and policies are already rolling out, how we can improve them, how we can support departments to improve their mission and more. I’m here for all New Yorkers, but my agencies focuses are really on the most vulnerable New Yorkers. I see it as an opportunity and privilege to meet with the public and work with community providers and key partners on ground-level work.
As deputy mayor, you oversee several different departments, each with several layers of their own. What unifying objective do you have for them?
That’s a great question, and it speaks to the mayor’s vision, because this is a collaborative administration, and my own. Coming from public health practice and philanthropy, I can think of health more broadly. I think about how we can bring to bear all the resources my agencies have and where we can make change. I ask myself questions like, “If we strategically pressed on a lever at the same time, does doing that push the agenda?” I understand every agency is big and has its own mandates, but there are key strategic places where, in working together, we can achieve more without distracting them from the everyday work they have at hand.
What would you say is one of the most difficult tasks ahead of you as deputy mayor?
One of the challenges right now is how to transform our health and hospital system in the face of the financial deficit and the many challenges this new federal administration is proposing: the repeal and replace fail, now trying to get that upcoming again, threats to Medicaid, some of the very concerning assaults on immigrants and immigrants’ rights. All of these things directly, by removing access to insurance, or indirectly, by instilling fear in communities and individuals who are undocumented or come from mixed-status families and feel they can’t come forward to receive the health services they need, are pressing challenges we’re in. Professionally, it’s gratifying to work for a mayor who’s standing strong to defend the most vulnerable New Yorkers.
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