Lambrew (center) served on a 2018 panel in Cambridge, England, discussing prescription drug affordability. In Maine, a green light has now been given to tackle prescription drug costs, including starting a program to import safe and low-cost medication from Canada. | Chris Williamson/Getty images
I struggle with some cognitive dissonance as we head out the door. Lambrew has worked closely with so many national luminaries, but here she is folding herself into my rental car so I can drive us up to Bangor and she can grab a hummus-and-pretzel lunch at a convenience store. A few members of her staff will meet her there for visits to the city’s DHHS regional office, to a local innovative housing agency and to the Bangor Area Recovery Network, which works with those trying to recover from addiction to opiates and other drugs.
We’re using the hour-plus ride for some Q&A. Lambrew is friendly and gracious, but admits that being interviewed makes her feel like a turtle who longs to retreat into its shell: “I have always struggled with the limelight, except when I know it advances my work.” She’s adamant about communicating the department’s goals and challenges, and so she’s made her peace with my presence.
I start by asking her about Amherst. Lambrew says she wanted a liberal arts education and fell for the serene campus and countryside. She got in early, earned the worst grades of her life her first year and finds it ironic that, given her profession, she didn’t take a single political science class. She majored in English and especially loved reading Ralph Waldo Emerson in an American lit class. She enjoyed philosophy, fine arts and French courses and lived in the French House one semester. There was also a semester at McGill University in Montreal, where she worked on her French and took a course in medical history, which heightened her interest in health policy.
At Amherst, Lambrew loved to go on long runs (still a habit) and rowed for the women’s crew team. Sometimes she even ran to practice at the boathouse, rather than taking the crew bus. Randa Brandt ’89, Lambrew’s friend and crewmate, told me that in an eight-woman scull, the 7 and 8 seats are vital for setting a steady stroke for everyone to follow: “Jeanne was usually 7. She could keep a regular rowing rhythm, even during the pressure of a race or when exhausted from a long row.” As a metaphor for her career, you couldn’t do better.
Lambrew’s Amherst experience wasn’t all charmed: she was dismayed by the lingering sexism of the early coed years, found the party scene off-putting and was frustrated by the College’s lack of public health career infrastructure. “There was a pretty well-trodden path from Amherst to three tracks: Wall Street, law school or medical school,” she says. “And when I was interested in something else, I didn’t find a lot of help.” (The College has since bolstered its offerings with, among other initiatives, a public health alumni-in-residence program and the Five College Program in Culture, Health and Science. “There has been a major increase in interest in public health among Amherst students over the past decade,” says Richard Aronson ’69, health professions adviser and assistant dean of students.)
Lambrew once toyed with a career in journalism. She interned at Portland Monthly the summer before her sophomore year and consulted English professor Barry O’Connell about becoming a writer. Their conversation has stuck with her: “He said, ‘What do you want to write about?,’ but I didn’t have a good answer. He said, ‘Well, you go figure out what you want to write about before you decide you want to be a writer.’ Which I did. I started jumping into learning substantially about health care.” She has now edited, co-authored or contributed to five books, and published scores of articles on public health. She also wrote most of the White House website’s blogs about the Affordable Care Act.
As president-elect, Barack Obama appointed Lambrew to the
new White House Office of Health Reform. “Jeanne Lambrew
has a depth and range of experience on health care that few
can match,” he once said.
Minutes after she told me this, she took a phone call about the several hundred asylum seekers, mostly from Congo and Angola, then being housed at the Portland Expo Building. Chicken pox cases had been reported, and she was coordinating with the Maine Center for Disease Control. Surprisingly, when she hung up, she tied that conversation back to ours about Amherst: “I learned from the faculty how words work, what they mean, how they can be strung together, and that remains incredibly important to me in my daily life. At the DHHS, we take communication very seriously. At the Portland arena, we had to communicate who was exposed, why there shouldn’t be panic, what people should do to make sure that they stay safe. Communication can be an actual intervention to keep people healthy.”
I ask her for a list of achievements of the Maine DHHS during her rookie year on the job. Key ACA protections for people with pre-existing conditions were codified into state law, she begins. A green light was given to tackle prescription drug costs, including starting a program to import safe and low-cost prescriptions from Canada. Philosophical and religious exemptions were eliminated from children’s vaccination requirements. State funding for abortion services was secured. Conversion therapy for LGBT people was banned, and gender-confirmation services are no longer excluded from Medicaid coverage. Initiatives have begun to explore long-term support for an aging population: Maine residents are, on average, the oldest of any state in the nation. And the DHHS has filled hundreds of positions left empty in the previous administration.
As we get closer to our destination, I fling her my last few questions.
Best job she ever had? “The best job has to be the one that makes the biggest difference. Right? So that would be my role in both HHS and the Obama White House, because every single day, we were making a difference. Although this current job as commissioner is rivaling it. Not in numeric scope—but because there’s so much meaningful work.”
Relationship status? “People assume you need to have a spouse or children to be fulfilled. I’ll just say I’ve been quite fulfilled without that.”
Books on her nightstand? Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book, about a family who summers in Maine, and Paul Doiron’s Maine game-warden mystery Trespasser.
Does she miss Washington? “To me, Washington was less of a place than an opportunity to act.”
Does she talk to fellow ACA veteran commissioners in other states? “Yes, we all work together very closely. Whenever things go badly, we all pick up the phone and call each other. It’s like a ‘commissioner support group.’ You know, in academia, you’re taught to be creative and innovative and unique and of course never plagiarize.
But in public policy, you should get the best practices, and you should plagiarize!”
What kinds of reactions is she getting around Maine? “What I love about Mainers is they’re direct. They’re giving me their list of complaints. They’re not tiptoeing around the concerns they have. They’re being respectful, but forthright, about the problems—and their skepticism that things can change quickly.”
Then we arrive in Bangor.