The health care community lost one of its greatest analysts this week with the passing of Uwe Reinhardt. Uwe was, without question, one of the most widely respected individuals in health care. His powerful intellect and ability to use humor to expose flaws in our ways of thinking won him admirers of all ages, backgrounds, and ideological stripes.
I first met Uwe back in 1996 when I chased him down at a meeting and asked him to join the advisory board for my then-three-year-old think tank, the National Institute for Health Care Management. He graciously, if not surprisingly, agreed and was a member of the institute’s leadership for the next 21 years. In that time, he left a profound mark on the organization, both on the research we do and on the collaborative atmosphere we strive to create.
Uwe often remarked that he enjoyed nothing more than to be “a skunk at your garden party.” It’s a characterization that would bring a smile to the face of anyone who knew him because he was so consistently delightful — the life of any party. Students and CEOs alike wanted to meet him, to hear his latest analysis or his latest jokes, or both. If you had Uwe Reinhardt at your meeting, the room would be full, standing room only, every time.
He didn’t hesitate to tell truth to power, and had a talent for doing so in a way that didn’t alienate the powerful. He was challenging but charming. That graceful candor was present in the posts he wrote for the New York Times and Forbes, now an archive of some of his sharpest and most entertaining thoughts and analyses. Underlying his critiques was the sincere belief that we deserve a better health care system.
Uwe brought this belief to his numerous advisory roles, from the White House to the World Bank, Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Yet it always seemed that the role he enjoyed most was that of Princeton professor. He began teaching at Princeton in 1968; among his past students you will find a former Senate majority leader and some of nation’s top health care researchers. His students weren’t limited to the halls of Princeton, however. He was a generous mentor who offered gentle guidance to countless health care leaders, including me, and always with a genuine modesty about his role.
Uwe published and spoke on just about every issue in health policy and economics, but he is probably best known for his work on the role of prices in U.S. health care spending. When he spoke about this topic, he wouldn’t just talk about trends or markets, he would talk about people. He would talk about the struggle of getting by without insurance. He would talk about middle-class wages failing to keep pace with the rising cost of health care. He would remind us that there are human beings behind the charts and the data. And then he would ask, “What does our system say about our values?”
It’s a question that we must continue to ask. As we mourn Uwe’s passing, those of us who were privileged to know him must continue to push for the health care system he passionately believed we deserve, remember that health care is about people, and challenge stale ways of thinking with humor and grace. Because, to me, the greatest part of Uwe’s legacy will be the way his kind heart inspired us all.
Nancy Chockley is the president and CEO of the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to transforming health care through evidence and collaboration.