U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
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HHS Historical Highlights

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the nation's principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services.

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


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


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


The Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness (now the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response) was created to coordinate efforts against bioterrorism and other emergency health threats.


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.


Publication of human genome sequencing.


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.


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


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

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


The Social Security Administration became an independent agency.


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

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Human Genome Project was established.

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

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


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


JOBS program and federal support for child care was created.

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


National Organ Transplantation Act was signed into law.


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


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


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


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.


Child Support Enforcement and Paternity Establishment Program was established.


National Cancer Act was signed into law.


National Health Service Corps was created.

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International Smallpox Eradication program was established.

Community Health Center and Migrant Health Center programs were launched.


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.


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


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


First White House Conference on Aging.


Licensing of the Salk polio vaccine.

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

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The Cabinet-level Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) 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.


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


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


Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed.


Social Security Act was passed.


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


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


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

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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.


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.


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


The federal government opened a one-room laboratory on Staten Island for research on disease, a very early precursor to the National Institutes of Health.


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


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


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.


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 U.S. Senate.

June 9, 2014 - Present

  • Sylvia M. Burwell

April 28, 2009 – June 6, 2014

January 26, 2005 - January 20, 2009

February 2, 2001 - January 26, 2005

January 22, 1993 - January 20, 2001

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 August 22, 2014