Alumnus addresses pressing healthcare issues around the state of Georgia
Working as the chief of staff for then- Congressman Nathan Deal in the 1990s, Cook learned a valuable lesson from his mentor. “He taught me that there’s an art to living life with humble discipline and integrity, and that when you do the right thing for the right reason, you produce good results,” he said.
Today, as the State of Georgia’s Commissioner for the Department of Community Health (DCH), Cook looks for solutions to health care issues that impact millions of low-income, underserved Georgians every day. Under his leadership, the $12 billion state agency is responsible for all health care purchasing, planning and regulation in the state. “Our mission is to provide access to affordable, quality health care to Georgians through effective planning, purchasing and oversight, and thus create a healthy Georgia,” he said. The agency administers the Medicaid program which serves 1.7 million Georgians. It also oversees the State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP) that insures nearly 700,000 state employees, teachers, retirees and their dependents through one of the nation’s largest state health insurance programs. Combined, Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan provide access to health care for nearly one in four Georgians.
Cook began his lifetime role as an advocate when he served a term as president of Georgia Southern’s Student Government Association (SGA) during his senior year. “I had a weekly radio broadcast called ‘Report from the President.’ I answered questions during my call-in show from students about a variety of campus matters,” he said.
After graduating with a political science degree from the University, he worked as the reading clerk for the Georgia State Senate for two years before attending law school at the University of Georgia. As a law student, Cook gained additional experience working with the Prisoner Legal Counseling Program on pro-bono criminal, misdemeanor and appellate cases. “After I graduated from law school, I was tapped to open the legal office at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville as part of a program to provide appellate services in compliance with federal court orders. I worked on this program for the first 18 months of my legal career and taught constitutional law at Georgia Southern. It was like coming home to have this role as a graduate of Georgia Southern,” he said.
During the next decade, Cook was able to use his leadership skills, legal expertise, legislative experience and an understanding of health care practices as he built his career. He moved to Atlanta, opened a law firm, worked as a top aide to then-state Senator Nathan Deal and subsequently began a lengthy association with the Medical Association of Georgia (MAG) first as the director of government relations, handling all areas of law and advocacy for the association.
In 2001, Cook was named executive director and CEO of MAG, and over the next several years he restructured the organization and added new components such as the Physicians’ Institute for Excellence in Medicine, which helps improve health care outcomes through medical education.
“The Institute supports physicians with educational programs, as well as sponsoring projects to improve the effectiveness of practices and processes in their offices,” said Cook. One important initiative was the launch of the MAG E-Technology Academy, to assist physicians with the use of technology in their offices.
Last January, Gov. Deal appointed Cook to his current position at the DCH, which serves more than 1.7 million residents through Georgia Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids®. “Under the new health care reform law, we estimate that we will add approximately 650,000 new members over the next several years,” he said, mentioning a future challenge for the agency.
On the horizon, Cook foresees a future collaboration between DCH’s Office of Rural Health and Georgia Southern’s Rural Health Research Institute. “The Rural Health Research Institute is a perfect complement to the immense amount of work being done by our office,” said Cook, acknowledging the needs of the rural and underserved in the state. “Health care delivery is an arena of constant change and it is imperative to continue to be flexible and responsive to that change, always seeking ways to make things better.”
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