Health & Medicine

Kaiser Permanente chairman and CEO Bernard Tyson, 60, dies unexpectedly

Bernard J. Tyson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest managed health care organization, died Sunday. He was 60.

Tyson, who rose through the ranks from intern to the leader of the Oakland-based health care giant in a career that spanned 35 years, died unexpectedly in his sleep, the company said. The cause of his death was not disclosed.

“Bernard was an exceptional colleague, a passionate leader, and an honorable man. We will greatly miss him,” Kaiser board member Edward Pei said in a prepared statement.

Tyson, became Kaiser’s CEO in 2013 and was named chairman in 2014, leading the nonprofit foundation that operates integrated managed care, hospitals and regional medical groups in California, seven other states and Washington, D.C. In his six-year tenure, the company grew to 12.3 million members from 9.1 million, and employed more than 215,000 workers, up from 174,000 in the same period. The company’s annual revenue also grew to nearly $80 billion last year from $53 billion in 2013.

Tyson, who was named to Time’s 100 Most Influential People List in 2017, was the first African American to lead a major national health care chain, and became a prominent black voice on race relations, equity in health care and the need for affordable care in America.

“(A) champion for high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans, Bernard was a tireless advocate for Kaiser Permanente, our members and the communities we serve,” the company said Sunday. “Most importantly, Bernard was a devoted husband, father and friend. We all will miss his tremendous presence in our lives.”

As CEO, Tyson was an outspoken advocate for racial equity, both in health care and in the world of business, often noting the racial disparities in care but also the everyday struggle of being a black man in America.

He sparked a national conversation about race in 2014 after he wrote an article centered around the shooting of Michael Brown.

“You would think my experience as a top executive would be different from a black man who is working in a retail or food service job to support his family,” Tyson wrote. “Yet, he and I both understand the commonality of the black male experience that remains consistent no matter what the economic status or job title.”

He was vocal in his support of the Affordable Care Act, telling the Wall Street Journal in 2017 that he was committed to keeping Kaiser in ACA exchanges despite market instability, while other health care providers like Aetna backed out.

Tyson had just given a talk on health care technology Saturday, hours before he died. His sudden death reverberated across California’s health care industry and prompted one of the company’s unions to postpone a strike that was to begin Monday.

Tyson remembered as ‘compelling leader’

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday gave a statement mourning Tyson’s death and offering condolences to his family.

“Bernard’s vision and influence made an impact at home and abroad, and he led with excellence on behalf of millions of Kaiser patients and thousands of employees,” Newsom said. “We will always remember how he made health care accessible for so many while paving the way for countless professionals of color to pursue leadership roles in health care and corporate America.”

Heather Young, professor and dean emerita of the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis, characterized Tyson as a “compelling leader” and a “champion for the future of health care.”

Young, who was once appointed by Tyson to serve on the board of Kaiser Permanente’s school of medicine, said that under his leadership, Kaiser has made great strides in technology, accessibility and preventative care.

“He was a beacon for California – for the nation,” Young said. “His leadership (and) his vision will be terribly missed.”

Sutter Health president and CEO Sarah Krevans said on Twitter that she had known Tyson for more than 35 years as both friends and competitors.

“So sad to hear of the passing of Bernard Tyson,” Krevans said. “Rest in peace, my friend.”

Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act, remembered Tyson as a visionary whose legacy will endure in California and across the country.

“Bernard’s vision and laser focus on increasing access, quality and affordable health care coverage for all has helped transform Kaiser and had a positive impact on the entire health care system,” Lee said in a prepared statement. “He truly ‘walked the talk’ in his concern for making health care not just a right, but something that is affordable and centered on the great diversity of patients. ”

Kaiser’s board of directors named executive vice president Gregory Adams as interim chairman and CEO. Adams will be responsible for continuing operations at the system’s 39 hospitals and 701 medical offices, which staffs more than 22,000 doctors and nearly 60,000 nurses, and had an operating revenue in 2018 of $79.7 billion.

“The board has full confidence in Greg Adams’ ability to lead Kaiser Permanente through this unexpected transition,” Pei said.

The nonprofit organization, founded in 1945 in the Bay Area by industrialist Henry Kaiser and others, is synonymous with health care in Northern California and serves the health care needs of about 4.4 million people in the region. Two thirds of all Kaiser members are California residents.

A five-day strike planned by the National Union of Healthcare Workers over concerns about access to care, including wait times for return appointments, was postponed late Sunday.

‘I’ve always had this calling’

Bernard James Tyson was born January 20, 1959, in Vallejo – one of seven children born to Moses Tyson, a carpenter and part-time minister, and his wife, Billie, a homemaker. It was his mother’s frequent visits to hospitals for diabetes that inspired him to seek a career in health care, he said in a 2015 interview.

“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. It was those tough times in Vallejo General Hospital that proved formative.

“I’ve always had this calling,” he told the San Francisco Business Times in 2015, remarking how his childhood experiences were influenced by “wonderful people in white coats who genuinely acted like they cared for my mother.”

Tyson graduated from Vallejo High School in 1977 and began working for Vallejo General Hospital while attending college at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in health service management in 1982 and earned his MBA in 1984.

“I got my MBA in health service administration and got to see the hospital worldview,” he told Bloomberg in 2015. “Everything happens there, from birth to death. You see all the emotions.”

Shortly after, Tyson would begin his 35-year relationship with Kaiser Permanente, first in a six-month internship then full time as an administrator.

In 1992, he was named CEO of the foundation’s hospital in Santa Rosa before joining the corporate leadership in 1999. It was during this time, he managed the organization’s health care operations outside of California and helped launch the company’s “Thrive” marketing campaign, a mainstay of the brand to this day.

“We had a very aggressive growth plan outside of California and almost went bankrupt: We grew too fast,” he told Bloomberg of the company’s direction before 2000. That year, Tyson also underwent open-heart surgery.

After three years as the company’s president and chief operating officer, he was named CEO of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. and Hospitals in 2013, adding the chairman role in 2014.

“It’s funny, in my career at Kaiser Permanente, I finally got promoted to hospital administrator in Santa Rosa. ... I was technically in the job less than a year, and they moved me into a regional role to help reorganize Northern California. That was when I started up the health-plan track,” he told his alma mater in 2015. “It was that process that exposed me to the broader workings of Kaiser. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d be doing what I’m doing today.”

Tyson is survived by his wife, media executive and entrepreneur Denise Bradley-Tyson, and three sons, Bernard Jr., Alexander and Charles.

The Bee’s Daniel Hunt and Cathie Anderson contributed to this report.
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Vincent Moleski covers business and breaking news for The Bee and is a graduate student in literature at Sacramento State. He was born and raised in Sacramento and previously wrote for the university’s student newspaper, the State Hornet.