Dr. Philip R. Lee, who as a leading federal health official and fighter for social justice under President Lyndon B. Johnson wielded government Medicare money as a cudgel to desegregate the nation’s hospitals in the 1960s, died on Oct. 27 in a hospital in Manhattan. He was 96.
The cause was heart arrhythmia, his wife, Dr. Roz Lasker, said.
From his office at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, as the assistant secretary for health and scientific affairs from 1965 to 1969, Dr. Lee engineered the introduction of Medicare, which was established for older Americans in 1965, one year after Johnson had bulldozed his landmark civil-rights bill through Congress.
“To Phil, Medicare wasn’t just a ‘big law’ expanding coverage; it was a vehicle to address racial and economic injustice,” his nephew Peter Lee, the executive director of Covered California, which runs the state’s health care marketplace under the Affordable Care Act, was quoted as saying in a tribute by the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Lee was the university’s chancellor from 1969 to 1972, after leaving the Johnson administration.
Dr. Lee’s use of Medicare funding to desegregate hospitals “changed the economic lives of millions of seniors,” Mr. Lee added.
Provisions in the Medicare legislation subjected 7,000 hospitals nationwide to rules barring discrimination against patients on the basis of race, creed or national origin. The law required equal treatment across the board — from medical and nursing care to bed assignments and cafeteria and restroom privileges — and barred discrimination in hiring, training or promotion.
Before the law took effect in 1966, fewer than half the hospitals in the country met the desegregation standard and less than 25 percent did in the South.
“I remember during one of my visits,” Dr. Lee told the journal of the American Society on Aging in 2015, “a cardiologist at Georgia Baptist Hospital told me, ‘Well, you know, Dr. Lee, if I put a nigger in with one of my white patients, it would kill the patient. My patient would die of a heart attack.’”
By February 1967, a year or less after many of the law’s provisions had taken effect, 95 percent of hospitals were compliant, Dr. Lee said.
“He was largely responsible for that effort,” said Professor David Barton Smith of Drexel University and author of “The Power to Heal: Civil Rights, Medicare and the Struggle to Transform America’s Health System” (2016).
Dr. Lee hailed from a family of physicians — his father and four siblings were doctors — and while working in the Palo Alto Medical Clinic (now the Palo Alto Medical Foundation), which his father founded, he saw firsthand the effects on the poor and the elderly of inadequate health care and the lack of insurance coverage.
As early as 1961, he was a consultant on aging to the Santa Clara Department of Welfare in California, and as a member of the American Medical Association and a Republican at the time, he defied both the A.M.A. and his party