Bernard J. Tyson, the chairman and chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, the large and influential California health care organization that many view as a model for the rest of the country, died on Sunday. He was 60.
In a statement, the company said he had unexpectedly died in his sleep but gave no other details.
Mr. Tyson had worked for Kaiser Permanente, which is based in Oakland, for more than three decades, beginning in the medical records department. He later became a hospital administrator and held a series of executive posts with the company until being named chief executive in 2013 and chairman the year after that.
Kaiser’s board of directors said Gregory A. Adams, executive vice president and group president, would serve as interim chairman and chief executive.
By the time Mr. Tyson took it over, Kaiser, founded in 1945, had evolved from a classic health maintenance organization, or H.M.O., into one of the most respected health care groups in the United States, combining a network of hospitals and clinics with its own nonprofit health plan, in which its doctors track patients closely. With its holistic approach, Kaiser built a reputation for providing consistent high-quality care.
The organization was among the first health systems to invest heavily in technology to better manage the care it delivered, spending billions of dollars to develop electronic health records. Mr. Tyson supported this push in the face of opposition within the organization, said George Halvorson, Mr. Tyson’s predecessor as chairman and chief executive.
Mr. Tyson understood that, as in the early days of the internet, the full uses of these medical records might not be clear at first but would eventually prove to be invaluable. “He had a very, very strong commitment to improving the quality of health care in systemic ways,” Mr. Halvorson said.
Mr. Tyson expanded Kaiser’s reach, adding another well-respected organization, Group Health Cooperative, to the organization’s fold in early 2017. Until then, Kaiser’s membership had not surpassed the peak it reached in the late 1990s, but under his leadership it rose to 12.3 million members, up from 9.1 million, across eight states and the District of Columbia. Kaiser’s operating revenue reached $82 billion last year.
As one of the nation’s most influential health care executives, Mr. Tyson was outspoken about bringing down health-care costs and moving away from the current system that pays hospitals and doctors more when they provide more care, regardless of how much a patient may need it. In an interview with The New York Times last week, Mr. Tyson said the industry needed to become more efficient so that more people could afford care.
“We’re working at it every day at Kaiser Permanente,” he said, adding that other health systems were trying to adopt Kaiser’s integrated model.
Mr. Tyson was committed to improving the health not only of the group’s members but also of the communities in which Kaiser operates, said Ceci Connolly, the chief executive of the Alliance of Community Health Plans, a trade association in Washington of which Kaiser is a member. He had the organization examine broad issues like housing shortages, food insecurity and gun violence and their impact on health and well-being.
“Bernard had an incredible appreciation for and a passion for on-the-ground tangible improvements to the lives of people,” Ms. Connolly said.
As Kaiser’s first African-American chief executive, Mr. Tyson used his position to call attention to racial issues, writing that his experience as a chief executive was not so different “from a black man who is working in a retail or food service job to support his family.”
“Even as a C.E.O., the black male experience is my reality,” he said.
“The son of a minister and a homemaker, Bernard never forgot where he came from and always stayed true to his values,” Robert F. Smith, an African-American billionaire who was a friend of Mr. Tyson’s, said in a statement, adding that “as an African-American C.E.O. of one of America’s most important companies,” Mr. Tyson had “embraced his opportunity to be a change maker.”
Bernard James Tyson was born on Jan. 20, 1959, in Vallejo, Calif., one of seven children of Moses and Billie Tyson. His father was a carpenter as well as being a part-time minister.
Mr. Tyson once told Bloomberg News that he traced his interest in health care to his mother’s medical problems.
“My mom was sick from diabetes, so we were in hospitals a lot, and I decided I wanted to run my own,” he told Bloomberg in 2015.
After graduating from Vallejo High School in 1977, Mr. Tyson attended Golden Gate University in San Francisco, receiving a bachelor’s degree in health service management in 1982. While pursuing his studies he worked for a time as an administrative analyst for Vallejo General Hospital. He went on to earn a master’s in business administration at Golden Gate in 1984. He joined Kaiser in 1987.
Mr. Tyson is survived by his wife, Denise Bradley-Tyson, and three sons, Bernard Jr., Alexander and Charles.
An early proponent of the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama, Mr. Tyson supported building on it rather than scrapping it in favor of a sweeping so-called Medicare-for-all plan, as proposed by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. Their plans would do away with private insurance and create a vehicle like an expanded version of Medicare.
Mr. Tyson argued that these proposals had failed to move the country away from a discussion of health insurance to one focused on reducing costs and improving the quality of care.
“We would spend the next decade blowing up the commercial marketplace,” he said, and policymakers would be wasting time that they could otherwise spend on more important issues. “It will continue to be a narrative about coverage,” he said.
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