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Historical Highlights

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)serves as the nations principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans, and providing essential human services. HHS has enjoyed many highlights since becoming a separate agency, while its roots go back as far as the early days of our nation.

Below is a list of major events in HHS history and a list of the Secretaries of HHS/HEW.

2010

The Affordable Care Act was signed into law, putting in place comprehensive U.S. health insurance reforms.

2003

The Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 was enacted; the most significant expansion of Medicare since its enactment, including a prescription drug benefit.

2002

Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness was created to coordinate efforts against bioterrorism and other emergency health threats.

2001

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid was created, replacing the Health Care Financing Administration.

HHS responds to the nation’s first bioterrorism attack -- delivery of anthrax through the mail.

2000

Publication of human genome sequencing.

1999

The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 was signed, making it possible for millions of Americans with disabilities to join the workforce without fear of losing their Medicaid and Medicare coverage. It also modernized the employment services system for people with disabilities.

Initiative to combat bioterrorism was launched.

1997

The State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) was created, enabling states to extend health coverage to more uninsured children.

1996

Welfare reform under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was enacted.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was enacted.

1995

The Social Security Administration became an independent agency.

1993

The Vaccines for Children Program was established, providing free immunizations to all children in low-income families.

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1990

The Human Genome Project was established.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was passed, authorizing the food label.

The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency (CARE) Act began providing support for people with AIDS.

1989

The Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (now the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality) was created.

1988

The JOBS program and federal support for child care was created.

The McKinney Act was passed to provide health care to the homeless.

1984

National Organ Transplantation Act was signed into law.

1981

Identification of AIDS. In 1984, the HIV virus was identified by PHS and French scientists. In 1985, a blood test to detect HIV was licensed.

1980

Federal funding provided to states for foster care and adoption assistance.

1979

The Department of Education Organization Act was signed into law, providing for a separate Department of Education. HEW became the Department of Health and Human Services, officially arriving on May 4, 1980.

1977

The Health Care Financing Administration was created to manage Medicare and Medicaid separately from the Social Security Administration.

Worldwide eradication of smallpox, led by the U.S. Public Health Service.

1975

Child Support Enforcement program was established.

1971

National Cancer Act was signed into law.

1970

The National Health Service Corps was created.

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1966

International Smallpox Eradication program was established.

Community Health Center and Migrant Health Center programs were launched.

1965

Medicare and Medicaid programs were created, making comprehensive health care available to millions of Americans.

Older Americans Act created the nutritional and social programs administered by HHS’ Administration on Aging.

Head Start program was created.

1964

Release of the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health.

1962

The Migrant Health Act was passed, providing support for clinics serving agricultural workers.

1961

First White House Conference on Aging.

1955

Licensing of the Salk polio vaccine.

Indian Health Service was transferred to HHS from the Department of Interior.

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1953

The Cabinet-level Department of Health, Education and Welfare was created under President Eisenhower, officially coming into existence April 11, 1953. In 1979, the Department of Education Organization Act was signed into law, providing for a separate Department of Education. HEW became the Department of Health and Human Services, officially arriving on May 4, 1980. Some highlight dates in HEW and HHS history:

1946

Communicable Disease Center was established, forerunner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

1939

The Federal Security Agency was created, bringing together related federal activities in the fields of health, education and social insurance.

1938

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed.

1935

The Social Security Act was passed.

1930

The National Institute (late Institutes) of Health was created out of the Public Health Service's Hygienic Laboratory.

1921

The Bureau of Indian Affairs Health Division was created, forerunner to the Indian Health Service.

1912

President Theodore Roosevelt's first White House Conference urged creation of the Children's Bureau to combat exploitation of children.

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1906

The Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed, authorizing the government to monitor the purity of foods and the safety of medicines, now a responsibility of the FDA.

1902

Conversion of the Marine Hospital Service into the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service in recognition of its expanding activities in the field of public health. In 1912, the name was shortened to the Public Health Service.

1891

Immigration legislation was passed, assigning the Marine Hospital Service the responsibility for medical examination of arriving immigrants.

1887

The federal government opened a one-room laboratory on Staten Island for research on disease, thereby planting the seed that was to grow into the National Institutes of Health.

1878

The National Quarantine Act was passed, beginning the transfer of quarantine functions from the states to the federal Marine Hospital Service.

1871

Appointment of the first Supervising Surgeon (later called Surgeon General) for the Marine Hospital Service, which had been organized the prior year.

1862

President Lincoln appointed a chemist, Charles M. Wetherill, to serve in the new Department of Agriculture. This was the beginning of the Bureau of Chemistry, forerunner to the Food and Drug Administration.

1798

Passage of an act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen, which established a federal network of hospitals for the care of merchant seamen, forerunner of today's U.S. Public Health Service.

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Secretaries of HHS and HEW

The Secretary is a member of the President’s Cabinet. Nominations to the office of Secretary are referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, as well as the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. Confirmation is last considered by the full U.S. Senate.

April 28, 2009 – Present

  • Kathleen Sebelius

January 26, 2005 - January 20, 2009

  • Michael O. Leavitt

February 2, 2001 - January 26, 2005

  • Tommy G. Thompson

January 22, 1993 - January 20, 2001

  • Donna E. Shalala

March 1, 1989 - January 20, 1993

  • Louis W. Sullivan, M.D

December 13, 1985 - January 20, 1989

  • Otis R. Bowen, M.D.

March 9, 1983 - December 13, 1985

  • Margaret M. Heckler

January 22, 1981 - February 3, 1983

  • Richard S. Schweiker

August 3, 1979 - January 20, 1981

  • Patricia Roberts Harris

January 25, 1977 - August 3, 1979

  • Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

August 8, 1975 - January 20, 1977

  • David Mathews

February 12, 1973 - August 8, 1975

  • Caspar W. Weinberger

June 24, 1970 - January 29, 1973

  • Elliot L. Richardson

January 21, 1969 - June 23, 1970

  • Robert H. Finch

May 16, 1968 - January 20, 1969

  • Wilbur J. Cohen

August 18, 1965 - March 1, 1968

  • John W. Gardner

July 31, 1962 - August 17, 1965

  • Anthony J. Celebrezze

January 21, 1961 - July 13, 1962

  • Abraham Ribicoff

August 1, 1958 - January 19, 1961

  • Arthur S. Flemming

August 1, 1955 - July 31, 1958

  • Marion B. Folsom

April 11, 1953 - July 31, 1955

  • Oveta Culp Hobby

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Content last reviewed on June 19, 2006