Remembering Dr. Philip R. Lee and His Legacy of Equitable Healthcare

Dr. Philip Lee
Dr. Philip Lee

Dr. Philip Lee, a giant in the field of healthcare and public health policy from the 1960s, has died at age 96 after a long and distinguished career.

We remember Dr. Lee for his lifelong efforts to bring medical care and access to health services for all Americans—rich or poor; white or Black, Native American, Hispanic, or immigrant; young or old. Born into a family of doctors, from his 1948 graduation from Stanford Medical School and throughout his long career as a clinician, public health administrator, educator and academic leader, Dr. Lee always sought to make this country healthier and more equitable.

At the beginning it was Medicare and the fight to gain coverage for America’s older population that fell outside private, employer-based insurance and suffered high rates of uninsurance. As a young physician, Dr. Lee was among the “fathers” of Medicare. As assistant secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Lee held responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the 1965 legislation establishing Medicare as the federal health program for Social Security beneficiaries who were older than age 65. This provided the guarantee of health coverage that older adults have and cherish today.

But beyond the coverage Medicare provided, Dr. Lee and his colleges saw Medicare as a powerful leverage for social change, with the authority of the newly enacted Civil Rights Act of 1965 that provided a vehicle for helping to desegregate America. As Dr. Lee noted in a 2015 Generations journal article, “with the passage of Medicare, 7,000 hospitals became subject to the civil rights legislation.”

Evidence demonstrates the impact of this decision and many believe that this leverage was one of the most important steps in moving toward equitable healthcare access in America. Dr. Lee had helped to use Medicare as an engine for change.

While Dr. Lee went on to a distinguished career as an academic leader in medicine and public health and a beloved mentor to many of us in health policy, he never left his commitment to Medicare. As the inaugural chair of the Physician Payment Review Commission (PPRC, which is now incorporated in MedPAC), Dr Lee led efforts to revise and reform physician payment that are now embodied in Medicare and widely adopted by private insurers. His vision helped to shape the role MedPAC plays today in analyzing and advising on Medicare payment policy.

On a personal level, Phil lee was an incredible mentor and promoter of those who crossed his path. He was forever ready to discuss new career opportunities and to promote his trusted staff and students for new challenges. He was always generous with his time and uplifting in his spirit no matter the ups and downs of public policy. The Phil Lee institute at University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) is a testimony to his commitment to support the next generation of researchers, analysts and physicians that will help shape health policy for years to come. Dr. Lee’s longtime commitment to public service inspired a generation of physicians to devote their careers to public health and public service.

Dr. Lee leaves not only a legacy that will long be honored, but even more important, he serves as a role model for those of us who try to follow in his footsteps: Fight for social justice and what you believe, no matter how difficult. And mentor and inspire the next generation, so others will take up the challenges and continue to fight for equity and social justice, just as Dr. Lee fought for Medicare throughout his career.

As we honor our loss with the passing of our friend and colleague Phil Lee, let us take up his challenge to envision and build a world where healthcare is available and accessible to all.

Diane Rowland, ScD, is executive vice president emerita at the Kaiser Family Foundation, in Washington, DC.