Dr. Quentin Young, the Chicago-based physician who cared for Martin Luther King, Jr., Studs Terkel, and President Barack Obama and was described as "perhaps the nation's most eloquent and high-profile spokesperson for single-payer national health insurance" in the United States, died Monday surrounded by family. He was 92.
"I've spent a lifetime trying to help others – in my daily rounds, in my clinic, as a hospital administrator, at demonstrations, in my work with health advocacy groups – and it all adds up to deeply rewarding career. Few people have such good fortune." —Dr. Quentin Young (1923-2016)A prominent spokesperson for Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), one of the nation's leading single-payer advocacy groups, Dr. Young was a committed voice for a health system built on the needs of patients and society as opposed to one designed to accommodate the greed and profit-making of insurance companies, private hospitals, and Big Pharma.
In a statement, PNHP executive director Dr. Robert Zarr said that Young "was known for his sharp, clear-eyed analysis of social and economic problems, particularly in health care, his deep commitment to social justice and racial equality, his quick wit, his insuppressible optimism, personal courage, and his ability to inspire those around him to join him in the battle for a more equitable and caring world."
In addition to his work with PNHP, Dr. Young co-founded and chaired for many years the Chicago-based Health and Medicine Policy Research Group. He also became well known in Chicago by hosting a public radio program in which he discussed health and social issues and took calls from listeners.
Young was also a leader in public health policy and medical and social justice issues. He was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal physician during his stays in Chicago, and during the civil rights era he served as national chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights.
Nationally, Young achieved prominence for his human rights and advocacy work and was noted for accumulating an impressive list of patients, which in addition to King included journalist Terkel, the current president, and many others.
As the Chicago Tribune reports:
A longtime civil rights activist, Young was among the volunteers in the campaign to register black voters during Mississippi's Freedom Summer in 1964. He participated in one of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and was a founder and national chairman for the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which worked to provide medical care to campaign volunteers and other civil rights workers.
Young regularly brought his five children with him to demonstrations in the early 1960s, many of which pushed for the desegregation of public schools.
Quoted by the Tribune, Young's son Michael fondly recalled being brought to those protests and rallies during his youth as well as memorable visits to the family home by civil rights luminaries such as Stokely Carmichael.
"My father had a real magnetism," said Michael Young. "He was able to inspire people to activism in a way that was extraordinary. He was a very positive person and very funny. People sought out his company, and he just had this passionate belief in the causes he embraced."
Dr. Young made national headlines in 2009 and 2010 during the congressional fight over what ultimately became known as Obamacare, by coming out against his powerful former patient's plan in favor of a single-payer strategy.
As Common Dreams reported at the time, Dr. Young and his allies had many specific reasons for opposing an approach that, despite its many positive aspects, actually left the private insurance apparatus even more powerful and profitable. In a 2010 statement for PNHP, during the height of the legislative fight, Dr. Young argued:
The president's proposal would ship hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to the private health insurance industry in the form of subsidies[...] And to help finance this, it would impose a new tax on health benefits of workers, especially those in high-cost states.
Its individual mandate would force millions of middle-income uninsured Americans to buy insurers' skimpy products - insurance policies full of gaps like ever-rising co-pays, deductibles and premiums. Such policies already leave middle-class American families vulnerable to economic hardship and medical bankruptcy in the event of a serious illness like cancer...
Even so, at least 23 million people would remain uninsured. We know that being uninsured raises your chance of dying by about 40 percent[...] That translates into about 23,000 unnecessary deaths each year. As physicians, we find this completely unacceptable."
In short, this proposal is an insurance company bonanza, not good, evidence-based health reform. The president would do better by abandoning the insurance and drug companies and instead taking up the single-payer approach. [PNHP] has estimated that such an approach could save hundreds of billions of dollars annually by simplifying health administration.
By building on and improving the already popular Medicare program, we could put our patients' interests first. Were President Obama to do so, he would meet with strong public support, including from the medical community.
On behalf of PNHP on Tuesday, Zarr extended the organization's condolences to Young's family and friends, and pledged—"inspired by his example"— to forever carry on his work. Zarr also quoted from Young's 2013 autobiography—Everybody In, Nobody Out: Memoirs of a Rebel Without a Pause—in which he wrote:
From my adolescent years to the present, I've never wavered in my belief in humanity's ability – and our collective responsibility – to bring about a more just and equitable social order. I've always believed in humanity's potential to create a more caring society.
That viewpoint has infused my relations with family, friends, patients and medical colleagues. It's been a lifelong, driving force to promote equality and the common good, and I believe it has served me well.
I suppose being a physician has made it easier for me to work toward this goal. Easier, that is, than if I had chosen a different occupation. I've spent a lifetime trying to help others – in my daily rounds, in my clinic, as a hospital administrator, at demonstrations, in my work with health advocacy groups – and it all adds up to deeply rewarding career. Few people have such good fortune.
But as you've no doubt noticed in the preceding pages, my views and actions have also propelled me into sharp conflict with institutions and person who would perpetuate injustice. That was true yesterday; it remains true today. My work is unfinished.
On Twitter, friends and fans of Young's career shared their fond memories and appreciation of the man and his work: