Psychiatric News Update

Valerie Jarrett Shares Insights From Her Years in the White House

Valerie Jarrett
“I think we all have a responsibility to take down the tone of the rhetoric we hear today,” said Valerie Jarrett, who was President Barack Obama’s longest-serving senior advisor, in a wide-ranging “fireside chat” with APA President Altha Stewart, M.D., at the Annual Meeting’s Opening Session.

“I don’t think health care should be a partisan issue,” Jarrett told Stewart. “When we crafted the Affordable Care Act [ACA], we tried to model it after what [Republican Gov.] Mitt Romney had done in Massachusetts with bipartisan support. We thought that maybe we could get everyone on board to work with this.

“Well, that was naïve,” Jarrett said, “but to this day I don’t understand why. People are talking about infrastructure. … We should invest in our own infrastructure—our own mental and physical health.”

Jarrett talked about her journey to the White House, her efforts as part of the Obama administration to help craft the ACA, and the future of American health care and politics. For someone who has flown high in life, the former presidential aide speaks with a personable touch and a knack for knowing how to connect with an audience. Her new book, Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, is available for sale in the APA Bookstore in the Exhibit Hall.

“People ask me if I was scared when I was in the White House,” she said. “Are you kidding? I woke up every day terrified [of the burden of responsibility]. What helped me was to keep my eye on true north and remember why I was doing what I was doing.”

Stewart took special interest in Jarrett’s background as the daughter of a physician. Her father, a pathologist, couldn’t find a job with compensation equal to that of his white counterparts and looked outside the United States for work. He moved to Iran, where he ran a hospital for children in Shiraz and where Valerie was born and lived until she was 5 years old. The family moved to London and then to Chicago.

Jarrett said one of the lessons she absorbed from her father was the importance of listening—a skill she brought to the Obama administration and its work on Obama’s signature legislative effort, the ACA.

“We spent a lot of time doing our due diligence so that we were ensuring we were reforming in a way that would provide better health care, and we listened so there wouldn’t be unintended consequences,” she recalled. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what we had because we listened to the people we were trying to serve. As someone who has always had insurance, it should not be a privilege; it should be a right and available to every American.

“We tried to craft a plan that did as much as we could. We thought it was important that we insure people with preexisting conditions and that young people could stay on their parents’ plans until they were 26. We wanted to make sure women had preventive care including birth control, because we know one of the major indicators of whether women [can break out of poverty] is the ability to determine when they can have children.”

Did she have any final words for psychiatrists?

“Thank you for your service,” Jarrett said. “We need you. I know the burden must seem insurmountable. But the challenges always seem impossible until the solutions seem inevitable. Know that you have partners around the country who want to work with you. There is safety in numbers. … You also need to take care of yourself.

“Talk in your community about why the ACA is good and articulate how it should improve. If we can take it out of the political atmosphere, maybe we can break the fever of turning every issue into a partisan one. So please keep talking about it in nonpolitical terms, and maybe we can get the politicians to do the same.

“Get busy.”

(Image: David Hathcox)


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