2006 Emerging Leaders

Karen Stewart

Played critical role in developing and implementing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the largest public health initiative ever.

You know you are a special public servant when the only negative thing anyone can say about you is that you might care too much about your work. Karen Stewart is that kind of special public servant. A native of rural Tennessee who lost her mother to lung cancer, this 33-year-old has dedicated her professional life to working on public health issues. In her first four years serving in government, Stewart’s uncommon passion has already driven her to accomplish extraordinary things.

Karen Stewart began her career in federal service as a Presidential Management Intern working on HIV/AIDS and rural health issues at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). While there, she caught the attention of Dr. Joseph O’Neill, who was selected by the President to become the nation’s “AIDS Czar” in 2002. Recognizing Stewart as a unique talent, O’Neill would bring her with him to the White House, and she would play a critical role in laying the groundwork for and implementing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the largest public health initiative ever.

Stewart’s first major assignment at the White House was to serve as the Executive Secretary of the steering committee for the International Mother to Child Prevention Initiative that sought to prevent the transition of HIV/AIDS from mothers to infants and to improve health care delivery in Africa and the Caribbean. In many ways, the Mother to Child program was the pilot project for the broader AIDS Emergency Plan. The idea was to get a smarter and more accountable approach to public health initiatives. Five-hundred-million dollars was provided for this initiative. In the past, participating agencies would have each gotten a slice of this $500 million pie to do their own projects. With this initiative, all U.S. government agencies were asked to coordinate their efforts, and it was Stewart who built relationships to get multiple agencies working from the same page.

The strategy was deemed a success, and in May 2003 the five year, $15 billion Emergency Plan based on this model was signed into existence.

O’Neill then left the White House and went to the State Department, and again, he took Stewart with him. At State, she worked alongside five colleagues to establish the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, which was authorized to oversee all U.S. International HIV/AIDS assistance and coordinate the efforts of various agencies to deliver it.

In November 2003, Stewart coordinated and convened a two-week planning meeting that involved more than 50 representatives from the State Department, Defense Department, HHS and the U.S. Agency for International Development. This intense planning meeting gathered experts to brainstorm and draft the programmatic foundation of the Emergency Plan, which was still largely undefined. Thanks in large part to Stewart’s work, the meetings were successful and consensus was reached on a draft for the fiscal 2004 operational plans for 14 focus countries.

In February 2004, Congress appropriated funding. Thanks to the meeting that Stewart had successfully organized, just one month later $350 million was put to work in the field. As a result, more than 18,000 people in AIDS-afflicted countries received life-sustaining therapies.

Stewart also led two teams that traveled to Africa and were critical for informing U.S. relief efforts. She visited five African countries in six weeks where she worked with the U.S. ambassador or deputy ambassador and their HIV/AIDS teams to communicate the new policies on international HIV/AIDS expenditures and helped teams in the field develop new program plans to reflect the influx of new funds.

Now-President of the private Immune Response Corporation, Joseph O’Neill has said that Karen Stewart is “the kind of person we need working in government.” Fortunately, O’Neill lived up to his words and, for once, didn’t take Karen Stewart with him when he started his new position, leaving her to further apply her unique talents and passion to serve others in government.