The Legacy of Bernard Tyson Will Endure

Bernard Tyson
Bernard Tyson. Photo: Kaiser Permanente

Like many of my colleagues at CHCF and across the world of health care, I have been reflecting on the life and career of Bernard Tyson, who died unexpectedly last weekend. Bernard is best known for serving as president and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation’s most important health care organizations, but his legacy only starts there.

When I first met Bernard many years ago, I remember the ease with which we talked about our respective backgrounds. I appreciated his keen observations about how public health and health care delivery needed to share resources differently. His life experience made him deeply aware of how profoundly place in community — beyond the clinic or hospital — influences health outcomes. This wisdom informed his vision for what it takes for communities to thrive.

Driving Health Care Improvement

Bernard spent most of his adult life trying to make health care more accessible, affordable, and responsive to the realities of patients’ lives. His steady, compassionate leadership helped to improve the health and well-being of millions of people.

He was a steward of one of the nation’s largest and best private-sector examples of integrated care. The commitment to innovation and improvement that he nurtured made his organization a welcome partner in CHCF’s work over the years.

“Bernard challenged the American health care system to use technology as a tool to transform health care from a ‘fix me’ system to one that integrates with people’s lives,” said Chris Grant, chief operating officer and executive vice president of The Permanente Federation — the leadership and consulting organization for the eight Permanente Medical Groups whose physicians provide care to Kaiser members — as well as an advisor to the CHCF Innovation Fund. “From virtual visits to lab results to ordering and reviewing medications, Bernard envisioned a fluid communication that goes back and forth with secure technology. He said, time and again, that this connectivity is not just the future — it is the now, and it’s what patients expect.”

During Bernard’s tenure, Kaiser played a major role in the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act in California and many other states where Kaiser provides patient care. When extremists in Washington attempted to repeal the law, Bernard helped to mobilize the ACA’s defenders within the health care industry. And while the Trump administration tried to sabotage the ACA’s development and destabilize individual insurance markets, Bernard was the calm, confident leader behind Kaiser’s commitment to stay in the state health benefit exchanges created by the law.

Looking Beyond Health Care

Bernard believed that everyone deserved the chance to “thrive,” and he understood that factors beyond health care could affect a person’s well-being. Under Bernard’s leadership, Kaiser took steps to connect patients living without financial security to housing, healthy food, and social services.

The prevalence of racism in America weighed heavily on Bernard as a health care leader and as a Black man. Throughout his career, he worked to make Kaiser a model of inclusion. He became one of the nation’s most respected leaders in both health care and among the nation’s Black CEOs. He was willing to confront the  violent consequences of hatred and prejudice in our society. Bernard wrote many essays on the topic. After a number of racially motivated shootings occurred in 2016, he observed, “This moment calls for unity, for listening, and for empathy as we seek to understand what communities of color are facing and the assumptions that the broader society is working from. Our ability to rise up and address embedded and complex issues in today’s society requires us to initiate and continue an open and progressive conversation. We must listen to understand other perspectives and test our own mental maps rather than to reinforce our own beliefs.”

From the emergency room to the C-suite, health care at its best depends on the dedication, wisdom, and compassion of professionals. “Health care delivery systems are ever more complex and challenging,” said CHCF board chair Daniel Gross. “Bernard had a unique talent to prioritize, simplify, and overcome daunting obstacles. His focus on those that we serve was never lost.”

For more than three decades, he was a beacon who helped us navigate California’s rugged health care terrain. Bernard’s light and his legacy will endure.