The OPIA Blog

Alumni Spotlight: A career path in health policy through the federal government

As Executive Secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jennifer Cannistra heads the policy development and regulations office and plays a role in countless decisions that affect the health and well-being of all Americans. A 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School, Ms. Cannistra has worked on health policy with the Obama administration since the 2008 election. Prior to that, she worked at a Washington, DC law firm in its education practice group, clerked for the Honorable Faith S. Hochberg, D.N.J, and worked on the Obama campaign.

Ms. Cannistra’s defining experience at HLS was the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where she primarily represented elderly and disabled clients facing eviction. Working over forty hours a week her second and third year, she made reasonable accommodation requests and coordinated with various state and local agencies to help her clients get necessary support and services to live independently.

Prior to law school, Ms. Cannistra’s background was in education: she has a master’s degree in international and comparative education, worked as a volunteer teacher, and interned at the Department of Education. While in law school, she did not expect that she would end up doing health policy. She emphasized that although students do not need to find their niche in law school, it is important to be flexible and remain open to different opportunities. Either in the classroom or during an internship, she recommends throwing yourself into your work and responsibilities. Even if the assignments are not legal in nature, people will notice your enthusiasm, remember that you are willing to be a team player, and ultimately give you more responsibility and more opportunities to highlight your abilities.

Ms. Cannistra joined the Obama campaign in September 2007. She worked in seven different states during the primaries. During the general election, she served as the Pennsylvania state policy director, where she became more involved in health policy. After the election, the campaign formed policy transition teams where small working groups teed up the incoming administration’s policy priorities in particular areas; Ms. Cannistra joined the health policy team. She wanted to work on health policy because her work with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau illustrated how quality health care can significantly improve people’s lives. Post-inauguration, Ms. Cannistra worked in the White House Office of Health Reform. Once the Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010, Ms. Cannistra moved over to HHS to work on implementation.

Ms. Cannistra recommended that students interested in health policy take advantage of the alumni connections at the law school by talking to people who hold positions that seem interesting, challenging, and rewarding. She noted that while the opportunity to have these types of conversations exists beyond law school, it is much easier while you are still a student. Health policy is a very complicated and challenging field, covering a wide range of issues, and she says she loves that her colleagues are so smart, passionate, and dedicated. She believes the field is also especially rewarding because your work helps enable people to live healthier and longer lives.

Written by former 1L Section Rep Diana Calla