After completing his medical training and service in the Navy Medical Service Corps during the Korean War, Lee undertook training at Dr. Howard Rusk’s Institute for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in New York and earned a research degree at the University of Minnesota. He first moved to Washington, D.C., in 1963 to serve as director of health services for the U.S. Agency for International Development, working to eradicate malaria and improve nutrition and family planning in developing countries. Two years later, he began work at what was then known as the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Lauren LeRoy, former executive director of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission and Lee’s longtime friend and colleague, said the Medicare assignment blended two of Lee’s passions: health policy and social justice. His commitment to equity continued in 1969, when he left federal service to become chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco. A year earlier, the UCSF Black Caucus had organized to push for increased admissions for students of color, more diverse hiring throughout the university and support for custodial and technical staff in labor disputes. Lee worked closely with the caucus, earning a spot on its Pioneers list as a non-Black supporter.
“He discovered that there were all sorts of different discriminatory practices that needed to be addressed and he worked diligently in the three years he was chancellor to at least turn the battleship around,” LeRoy said.
After stepping down as chancellor, Lee co-founded one of the nation’s first university-based multidisciplinary health policy and health services research programs, where he served as director from 1972 to 1993. The institute was renamed the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies in 2007.
Lee’s willingness to devote his career to health policy was somewhat unusual in his day.
“There weren’t a lot of physicians who would leave practice to work on policy, but Phil really believed that a physician could have a huge influence on population health by serving the public through a policy-oriented venue,” said Joanne Spetz, the institute’s director.
During Lee’s tenure, the institute produced research regarding social determinants of health, medical technology, prescription drugs and ethics, among other areas. When the AIDS crisis emerged in the early 1980s, the institute conducted studies to inform local, state and federal policies. In 1985, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein recruited Lee to be the first president of the city’s health commission as it responded to the epidemic.
The following year, Congress established the Physician Payment Review Commission to reform Medicare. Lee was appointed to head the commission. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Lee assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services.
LeRoy, who served as deputy director and executive director of the Physician Payment Review Commission, said Lee’s ability to build consensus was key to its success.
“I have never seen anyone like him,” she said. “He had very clear views and very strong values, but he let everybody put their ideas on the table. And then he looked for where he could move the group to consensus.”
Lola Butcher is a freelance writer based in Aveiro, Portugal.