Richard E. Besser

President and CEO

Richard Besser, MD, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a position he assumed in April 2017. Rich is the former acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and ABC News’ former chief health and medical editor.

At RWJF, Rich leads the largest private foundation in the country devoted solely to improving the nation’s health. RWJF’s work is focused on building a comprehensive Culture of Health that provides everyone in America with a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. Access to healthy food, clean air and water, safe housing, secure employment at a living wage, transportation, education, and the elimination of barriers from discrimination are all important contributors to health and well-being. In his role, Rich is a leading voice on the importance of health equity, advocating for racial justice, full inclusion of people with disabilities, and a COVID-19 response and recovery that prioritizes those most impacted.

In Rich's role at ABC News, he provided medical analysis and reports for all ABC News programs and platforms. His weekly health chats on social media reached millions.

While at ABC News, Rich traveled all over the United States and around the globe to cover major medical news stories. He walked the Ebola wards in Liberia in 2014, reporting from the center of the deadly epidemic, and continued to provide extensive coverage for months. In 2011, he led ABC's global health coverage, "Be the Change: Save a Life," reporting on critical global health issues from seven different nations.

Before joining ABC News in 2009, Rich worked as director of the Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response at the CDC. In that role he was responsible for all the CDC's public health emergency preparedness and emergency response activities. He also served as acting director of the CDC from January to June 2009, during which time he led the CDC's response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

Rich's tenure at the CDC began in 1991 working on the epidemiology of food-borne illness. He then served for five years on the faculty of the University of California, San Diego as the pediatric residency director, while also conducting research and working for the county health department on the control of pediatric tuberculosis. He returned to the CDC in 1998 as an infectious disease epidemiologist working on pneumonia, antibiotic resistance, and the control of antibiotic overuse.

The author or co-author of hundreds of presentations, abstracts, chapters, editorials and publications, Rich has earned many awards for his work in public health and for his volunteer service. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine. He received the Surgeon General's Medallion for his leadership during the H1N1 response, and in 2011 he accepted the Dean's Medal for his contributions to public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His investigative reporting into umbilical cord blood banking was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011. In 2012, he received an Overseas Press Club award as part of ABC's coverage of global maternal health issues, and two Peabody Awards as part of ABC News’ coverage of Hurricane Sandy and Robin Roberts’ health journey. In 2017 and 2018, he received an Emmy award for “Outstanding Morning Program” as part of the Good Morning America team. His book, “Tell Me the Truth, Doctor: Easy-to-Understand Answers to Your Most Confusing and Critical Health Questions,” was published by Hyperion in 2013.

Rich received his Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from Williams College and medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a residency and chief residency in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.

He continues to practice as a volunteer pediatrician at the Henry J. Austin Health Center in Trenton, N.J. He and his wife Jeanne, a food writer, have two sons, Alex and Jack.

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Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is committed to maintaining an equitable workplace and creating inclusive environments where all individuals are encouraged to share their perspectives and experiences.

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The COVID-19 Effect

The pandemic has demonstrated that disability inclusion in philanthropy is more crucial than ever. Read more from Richard Besser in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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Latest Op-Eds

What budget reconciliation could have been and what Congress must do next

The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act is a moment to celebrate—the investments in climate change and healthcare needs alone are historic. But we shouldn't lose sight of how the ambitious legislation envisioned last fall—including everything from paid family and medical leave to the extended Child Tax Credit and more—was sacrificed because of the politics of the moment. As the nation’s largest health philanthropy, RWJF had hoped for a far broader and more equitable effort to help create an America in which race and ethnicity, income level, neighborhood, disability, occupation, and immigration status no longer determine how long and how well people live. The fight must continue, write Richard Besser, RWJF president and CEO, and Avenel Joseph, vice president of Policy, until health equity is a reality for all rather than a distant aspiration for too many.

An avoidable hunger crisis still looms for millions of children: Opinion

Since early 2020, child nutrition waivers provided in response to the pandemic have made all students eligible for school meals at no cost and provided additional funding and flexibility to school meal programs. The waivers were set to expire June 30, which would have been premature: 23 million people in the United States are currently facing food insecurity and school meal programs are still struggling mightily with rising costs, staff shortages, and supply chain issues. Fortunately, Congress passed legislation last week ensuring that children could continue to receive meals at no cost through summer and extended some waivers through next school year. This bill averts the most dire short-term consequences but is far from perfect: it is imperative that the waivers be extended through next school year. As leaders of two nonprofit organizations committed to healthy school meals as integral to children’s learning and overall wellbeing, Richard Besser and Nancy Brown, CEO of the AHA, explain why this bill must be a first step not be a final one.