The chairman and CEO of the nation’s largest managed health care organization, Kaiser Permanente, Bernard J. Tyson, died suddenly on Sunday, November 10 at the age of 60.
Tyson rose through the ranks from intern to the leader of the health care giant, based in Oakland, California, a career that spanned 35 years. 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, as CEO, the company grew from 9.1 million members to 12.3 million, and employed more than 215,000 workers, up from 174,000. The company’s annual revenue also grew to nearly $80 billion last year from $53 billion in 2013.
Tyson, who was named as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2017, was the first African American to lead a major national health care chain. He became a prominent black voice on race relations, equity in health care and the need for affordable care in America. 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 healthcare as well as the everyday struggle of being a black man in America. In 2014 he sparked a national conversation about race 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.”
Tyson was vocal in his support of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As he told the Wall Street Journal in 2017, he was committed to keeping Kaiser in the ACA exchanges despite market instability, while other health care providers like Aetna backed out.
“The NMA mourns the untimely death of Bernard J Tyson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente,” said Oliver T. Brooks, MD, president of the National Medical Association.
“He demonstrated the heights to which an African-American executive in the healthcare industry can rise. During his time as CEO at Kaiser, he implemented programs to move forward African-American physicians and other healthcare professionals. Though his passing was sudden it will not diminish the highest degree of respect that the NMA held for this healthcare giant. The work that he began will be continued by those of us who follow in his wake. The NMA will long cherish his accomplishments to the healthcare industry.”
Bernard James Tyson was born January 20, 1959, in Vallejo, California, 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 Bloomberg 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 is survived by his wife, media executive and entrepreneur Denise Bradley-Tyson, and three sons, Bernard Jr., Alexander and Charles.