Dr. Rachel Levine has defied the odds.
She bested the partisan political winds of Harrisburg two years ago to be unanimously confirmed by Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate to the position of Pennsylvania’s physician general.
It was a major professional step for Levine, an accomplished educator and practitioner of pediatric and adolescent medicine who was respected in the halls of Penn State Hershey Medical Center.
For Levine, an openly transgender woman, the move from academia to politics, at Gov. Tom Wolf’s appointment, was a major personal step as well.
“I was open and out at Penn State Hershey, but I wasn’t in the paper. No one cared,” Levine said Wednesday during an LGBTQ Pride Month event at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in Harrisburg.
“I knew if I took the position, I would be out with a capital O-U-T,” Levine said.
Instead, she was very quickly in.
Levine easily navigated the confirmation process and has gone on to spend two years as the state’s top doctor, during which her education and experience have helped her work to address some of Pennsylvania’s most pressing health issues — including the opioid and heroin addiction crises.
Overdoses killed 4,812 people in Pennsylvania last year, Levine said, and “2017 looks worse.”
“This is all hands on deck,” she said, adding that the issue requires collaboration from the governor’s office down to counties and municipalities.
Fighting the onslaught of opioid addictions and deaths has been a signature issue for Wolf.
It’s important to recognize that there is a legitimate need for the powerful painkillers, Levine said. The challenge is preventing their misuse.
“Opioids are essential medications,” she said. “However, they have been way over-prescribed.”
That, and many legitimate prescriptions have found their way into the hands of other people.
State officials have worked with medical school officials and the leaders of clinical disciplines, including dental practitioners, to develop guidelines for when and how to properly prescribe opioid drugs, she added.
But one of the biggest hurdles to fighting addiction remains the stigma many still attach to it.
“Addiction is a disease, not a moral failing,” Levine said.
It’s also a disease that has links to other health crises, including the spread of HIV infections through intravenous drug use.
And despite years of education and medical advances, HIV rates are still high within the gay community, Levine said.
Two-thirds of new HIV cases are in men who have sex with other men, she said. Among men of color, 50 percent of those who engage in sexual activity with other men will be infected with HIV.
“That’s an absolutely startling statistic,” Levine said, calling for increased education and awareness. “We have to do more.”
Levine also spoke about the need to raise awareness of transgender health issues, and to battle the discrimination and bullying which leads to emotional and substance abuse among many in the community.
She also took aim at those who argue against transgender people’s use of the bathrooms matching their gender identity. Some critics have argued that such policies only put other people at risk, including children.
Levine said she’s never heard of a transgender person attacking anyone in a public bathroom.
“You’ll never meet anyone who is more nervous about going into a bathroom than a transgender individual,” she said.