Trying to sum up the contributions of Walter James McNerney to the healthcare industry is no easy task. His death at age 80 on July 29 leaves such a huge void. He was a remarkable individual who made a difference in everything he undertook and in the lives of so many people. The healthcare industry has lost one of those people they just don't make anymore. He was brilliant, strong, energetic and enthusiastic. He mentored hundreds of people and affected many times that number. He had no interest in the status quo and instinctively knew healthcare had to evolve to meet people's needs. It would have been great to have him with us as we take on new challenges in the future.
During his 45 years in healthcare, McNerney did it all. In 1950, at the age of 24, he was an assistant coordinator of hospitals and clinics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a faculty member in the university's graduate school of public health. In 1955, he moved to the University of Michigan where he founded the school's health administration program. Stephen Shortell, who later taught with McNerney at Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management (he's now at University of California at Berkeley), once said that McNerney was a "Renaissance man" in healthcare for having helped to start two graduate programs in healthcare, helping to shape the legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid and serving as a leader of various healthcare organizations.
In 1961, McNerney made a surprising career move, becoming president of the national Blue Cross Association, which then included 65 Blue Cross plans. In his new role, he became very involved in Washington health policy developments. He worked with presidents, labor leaders and Congress, becoming one of healthcare's leading power brokers.
One of his most important roles was in influencing the adoption and implementation of Medicare and Medicaid legislation, working closely with President Lyndon B. Johnson to help pass those monumental pieces of Great Society laws.
He later helped to secure the role of the Blues plans in serving as fiscal intermediaries for Medicare.
Early on, he recognized that HMOs were going to become a big part of healthcare. During his tenure at the Blue Cross Association he asked association members to allow such plans to be a part of Blue Cross indemnity packages around the country. In the early 1970s, hospitals and physicians didn't like HMOs any more then they do today, and many insurers weren't too happy with them, either. The measure for HMOs passed by six votes out of more than 2,000 cast by Blue Cross presidents from across the country.
By 1978, members of both the major Blues associations were concerned about possible loss of market share, and they merged their organizations into the national Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. McNerney was chosen to lead this new organization, which represented plans covering half of all Americans and distributed some $55 billion in benefits through private and public programs.
In 1982, McNerney stepped down from Blue Cross and Blue Shield after years of success. In a reflective moment, he said, "The price of sticking your neck out for 20 or 30 years is that people who are tenaciously in love with the status quo tended to hate you."
Stanley Nelson, the former CEO of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, once said, "Running the (Blues) association is like running the United Nations. It's not led by a bunch of shy, retiring executives. There are a lot of egos. Walter had the consummate skills of diplomacy, intellect and consensus building."
After leaving Blue Cross and Blue Shield, McNerney didn't go the way of so many former CEOs and retire. He stayed active with one foot in education and the other in the healthcare field through consulting and serving on many boards. McNerney represented both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. He received many awards and honors during his career and was inducted into Modern Healthcare's Health Care Hall of Fame in 1996.
Most recently he remained active in healthcare as a mentor, consultant and educator and was the Herman Smith Professor of Health Policy at the Kellogg school.
At his funeral in his hometown of Winnetka, Ill., his sons and daughter paid tribute to him. His son Dan McNerney talked about his deep respect and love for his dad and his wonderment that his father never held grudges, always giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.
The memorial service was filled with humor and plenty of smiles. There was very little sadness because everyone realized what a fulfilling life Walter McNerney lived. He loved to laugh. He loved his family and he loved people.
As we said goodbye to Walter James McNerney, there was plenty of reflection on his wisdom, good nature and decency. Because of his drive, brilliance and devotion, many citizens who otherwise would have been left vulnerable or even destitute now have healthcare coverage. Many others in the healthcare industry have a role model to emulate. And those of us who were his close friends have so many memories to cherish.
We were blessed to know you, Walter.