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Dr. Quentin Young, single-payer champion, dies at age 92

Dr. Quentin Young, a renowned internal medicine physician, civil rights leader and long-time advocate for “Medicare for all,” died of natural causes Monday in Berkeley, Calif. He was 92.

Young fought for social justice and healthcare equity, for public involvement in health policy decisions, and advocated that health insurance be a fundamental right.

For most of his life, Young worked in private practice in Chicago's Hyde Park community. He gained fame from some high-profile individuals who received care at his practice. They include President Barack Obama, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko, former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In fact, during the Civil Rights era, Young served as national chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. In 1951, he founded the Committee to End Discrimination in Chicago Medical Institutions, which helped desegregate Chicago hospitals. He also gave voice to several national healthcare policy issues.


Young and Obama Young and Obama
In his 2013 memoir Everybody In, Nobody Out, Young reiterated his long-standing support for a single-payer system.

“It's what every other modern industrialized country in the world has,” Young said during an interview that year. “Healthcare is a human right, and I don't understand why people in this country still refuse to accept that.”

If Young could have waved a magic wand, “We wouldn't have the Affordable Care Act, we would have had a single-payer system,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who worked closely with Young. “He felt strongly about covering everyone at a fair price ... and championed that his whole life."

In 2010, Young wrote a statement condemning the ACA and criticizing his former patient, President Obama. He called the ACA an "insurance company bonanza" because of the subsidies that would be provided to payers.

"The president would do better by abandoning the insurance and drug companies and instead taking up the single-payer approach," he wrote, adding that the individual mandate would force middle-income Americans to buy products that had rising co-pays, deductibles and premiums.

Other industry leaders who worked with Young also note his dedication to fighting for what he believed in. “If you want to make social change, you have to build social change organizations,” said Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, who helped found the Physicians for a National Health Program, which Young later chaired. “He led by building organizations that drive change.”


Young at a rally in 1970 Young at a rally in 1970
In 1981, Young co-founded the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, which advocates for equity in the U.S. healthcare system. He had a way of getting people to listen, “Even if you didn't always agree,” recalls Executive Director Margie Schaps. “He was serious and committed to the cause, but was also witty and told jokes. That drew people to him and helped to break the ice,” she said.

In 1992, Young took over as co-head of Physicians for a National Health Program, relocating the headquarters from Cambridge, Mass., to Chicago. In 1999, the director of policy and programs, Dr. Ida Hellander, established the Quentin D. Young Health Activist Award to honor physicians and other health professionals committed to social justice.

“So many people have awards named for them after they die,” Hellander said. “We wanted there to be an award people could receive from him while he was alive.” It is now considered one of Physicians for a National Health Program's highest recognitions.

Young served as president of the American Public Health Association in 1998. Benjamin recalls that one key priority was engaging patients to improve health outcomes. “You can't have public health without the public,” Benjamin remembers Young saying.

For his life's work, Young was recognized as one of Modern Healthcare's 50 Most Influential Physician Executives four consecutive times beginning in 2005.

The single-payer movement that he championed struggled for years, but resurged in 2007 when the Michael Moore documentary “Sicko” highlighted the effort.

“We moved up from being 'irrelevant' in the debate to being an 'undesirable alternative,' ” Young said at the time. In 2008, he retired from his internal medicine practice to devote attention to his activist positions full time.

In 2009, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn named Young as chairman of the state's Health Facilities Planning Board, which was at the heart of some of the corruption allegations levied against Quinn's ousted predecessor Rod Blagojevich.

Young attended the University of Chicago in the early 1940s, before leaving to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. He later attended Northwestern University's medical school in Chicago and did his residency at Cook County Hospital, where he worked for years.

Besides his healthcare pursuits, colleagues say Young and his late wife were also literature buffs, with an affinity for Russian authors and Shakespeare, which he sometimes quoted in speeches.


Sabriya Rice

Sabriya Rice reports on quality of care and patient-safety issues. Rice previously wrote and produced for the medical unit of CNN, where she contributed to the Empowered Patient column and the weekly medical program formerly called “Housecall with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.” She earned a bachelor's degree in film and television from the University of Notre Dame and a master's in communication studies from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. She joined Modern Healthcare in 2014.

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