Helen L. Smits

Helen L. Smits
"It's very hard to say what motivates me. If I look back on the things I did that I really liked, I like making things work, I like making it easier to get the work done, and I like moving bureaucracy out of the way."
- Dr. Helen Smits

Induction Category:
Science & Health

Born: 1937

Inducted: 2009

Town: Old Saybrook

Throughout her career Dr. Helen Smits has been a policy shaper and a strong advocate for quality healthcare for all. Early in her career, she worked in community healthcare programs designed to provide care to underserved populations. More recently, her work has been with international health initiatives to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa. Regardless of the specific project, Dr. Smits’ compassion and caring have enabled her to affect multiple continents and make a difference in innumerable lives. She has also taught at Yale University and the University of Connecticut Health Center, where she served as the Director of John Dempsey Hospital.

The daughter of Ted Smits, a freelance sports writer and editor, and Anna Mary Wells, an associate professor of English at Douglass College, Smits was born in 1937 in Long Beach, Calif. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Swarthmore College and continued on to Yale University for a Master of Arts in English. She later returned to Yale where she graduated cum laude from the School of Medicine with an M.D. in 1967.

Smits became involved with health policy and healthcare management early in her career. In 1977, she was named Director of the Health Standards and Quality Bureau at the Healthcare Financing Administration, an agency under the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This bureau sets standards for medical providers working with Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and during her time with the agency Smits sought ways to assure high-quality care while improving the processes by which healthcare is delivered and managed in the U.S. In 1993, she became one of the few women to head a federal health agency when she was named Deputy Administrator and Chief Medical Officer of the Healthcare Financing Administration. As Deputy Administrator, she was appointed by then HHS secretary Donna Shalala to oversee a review of the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assess privatization options. After the review was completed and a list of recommendations to bring the Clinical Center into the 21st century presented, Smits was chosen to serve on the Center’s Board of Governors. In 1997, she was elected to the Institute of Medicine.

In 2002, Smits was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and taught in the Department of Community Medicine at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. While in Mozambique she also volunteered with the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation to help draft the Ministry of Health’s plan to expand AIDS treatment and prevention. When, in 2003, the U.S. Congress passed the United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act establishing a 5-year, 15-billion dollar initiative to help developing countries around the world respond to AIDS and other public health crises, Smits served as Vice Chair of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). By 2007, her report indicated that the program had supported anti-retroviral therapy for more than 800,000 adults and children and HIV-tested nearly 19 million people. It is estimated that today more than 50,000 people world-wide are still living because of the work begun in 2003.

Now retired, Dr. Smits serves as a senior consultant to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s African Health Initiative, whose purpose is to support operations research related to AIDS prevention, care and treatment in Africa. She lives in Old Saybrook, Conn., with her husband Roger LeCompte, and together they continue to seek ways to improve healthcare around the world.

During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice