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Analysis

Strike Postponed After Sudden Death of Kaiser Permanente CEO Bernard Tyson

By Steven Porter  
   November 11, 2019

The healthcare industry praised him as 'an exceptional colleague,' 'a revered leader,' and 'a giant in health care.'

A five-day strike that was planned to begin Monday at more than 100 of Kaiser Permanente's mental health and medical facilities throughout California has been postponed after the sudden death of Chairman and CEO Bernard J. Tyson.

The nonprofit health system, based in Oakland, said Tyson, 60, died unexpectedly Sunday in his sleep. The board of directors immediately named Executive Vice President and Group President Gregory A. Adams as the organization's interim chairman and CEO.

Leaders across the healthcare industry responded to Tyson's death with a flood of praise for his vision, leadership, and accomplishments. Kaiser Permanente board member Edward Pei called Tyson "an exceptional colleague, a passionate leader, and an honorable man." The board of directors for America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) called him "a revered leader" who "epitomized what we should all strive to deliver." American Hospital Association President and CEO Rick Pollack called him "a giant in health care" and "a champion for creating a more integrated and coordinated delivery system" while expanding access and coverage.

"He was deeply passionate about the need to focus on wellness and prevention and was a tireless advocate for equitable care," Pollack said. "Whether it was addressing food insecurity or homelessness, he was a thoughtful voice on building a better future for all."

Tyson oversaw a payer-provider organization that has sought innovative solutions to population health problems, including hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in housing initiatives. And he has stuck by the Affordable Care Act insurance markets, even as other payer executives warned of a so-called "death spiral" in 2017, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California praised Tyson as "a champion for diversity in the workplace and racial justice." Tyson, the organization's first black CEO, has written about his views on how Americans should approach race relations, as informed by his own everyday encounters.

"Most CEOs don't leave their corporate offices, change clothes, and have car doors locked as they walk by or women move to the other side of the street hugging their purses as they see me out exercising. Even as a CEO, the black male experience is my reality," Tyson wrote in 2014.

Tyson, who worked three decades in management roles for Kaiser Permanente, was named CEO in 2013 and chairman in 2014. Since then, the organization has grown from 9.1 million members and $53 billion in annual revenue to 12.3 million members and $79.7 billion in revenue last year, as Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik reported.

The organization has been embroiled in labor disputes that challenge its public image, with some critics accusing the nonprofit of behaving more like a for-profit enterprise. Tyson's status as the nation's highest-paid nonprofit health system executive—he earned $16 million in 2017, as Kaiser Health News reported—was a point of contention.

National Union of Healthcare Workers President Sal Rosselli offered his condolences Sunday to Tyson's family, friends, and colleagues, and he announced that the labor union's leaders voted to postpone this week's strike, without scheduling a new date. The demonstration had been expected to include 4,000 psychologists, mental health therapists, and other medical professionals.

"Our members dedicate their lives to helping people through tragedy and trauma, and they understood that a strike would not be appropriate during this period of mourning and reflection," Rosselli said, noting that he'd known Tyson since the early 1980s, when Tyson was a manager at Kaiser Oakland Medical Center.

"While we had our differences, I had tremendous respect for him and his willingness to collaborate with workers to make Kaiser the model provider of medical services in California," Rosselli said. "We weren't able to achieve that same level of collaboration when it comes to Kaiser's mental health services, but I believed that he did want Kaiser to achieve real parity for mental health care, and I know our members remain fully committed to realizing that goal."

Related: Every Hospital Board Needs a CEO Succession Plan. Half Are Failing.

Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

Photo credit: Provided/Kaiser Permanente


KEY TAKEAWAYS

During his six years at the helm, Kaiser Permanente grew to nearly $80 billion in revenue last year.

His death comes amid labor disputes and innovative efforts to tackle population health challenges.


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