Uwe Reinhardt: Giant, mensch, knife twister

The renowned Princeton University health economist Uwe Reinhardt died today. The email from his Dean at the Woodrow Wilson school said he passed peacefully and surrounded by family.

Reactions on Twitter resonate with my own. They reflect Uwe’s contributions to and presence in health care policy and education — “insightful, “a treasure,” focused on the “moral underpinnings of policy,” “one of the nicest and funniest people in the field of health econ,” “a godfather of health policy and economics,” “a unique and disarmingly powerful voice in health policy,” a “world-class mensch,” “a gifted teacher and inspiring leader,” one of the “most acerbic speakers in Health Care over the last 20+ years. Never afraid to speak truth to power,” “engaging and understandable,” “a giant.”

I once called him “the narrator of U.S. health care policy.” Any journalist who could get hold of him for a health care story was sure to get pure gold. His wit and precision were evident in his spoken and written word. His command of English was tremendous. His ability to explain to lay audiences, legendary. If you’re unfamiliar, go read anything he wrote for The New York Times Economix blog, where he posted regularly for years. He can teach. You will learn.

Born and raised in Germany, he did it all in a second language. Of this, he reminded audiences regularly. The title of one of his presentations was, “Still Confused, After 40 Years in America!” Don’t believe it. Uwe was always the least confused person in the room.

He opened many speeches with, “I’m just an immigrant so maybe I am missing something about the curious American health care system” (or similar). I heard it many times. It never got old, particularly because I knew what was coming next. Just after such an opening, he would reveal some peculiarity of the health system I had never noticed in the same way. And then he proceeded to show how it was illogical, in violation of basic concepts of economics, immoral, or hypocritical.

He was a knife twister of the first class. Should you hold dearly an idea he targeted for systematic dismantling, you would squirm. If only I could write half as well or think one-third as clearly.

He touched so many lives and careers, including my own.

My first engagement with Uwe was in 2009, over one of his Economix posts. In the comments to that post, I asked him for an economics argument in favor of a public option. He was kind enough to respond at length directly to my inquiry in a follow-up Economix post. I was thrilled, even as I took a beating. I documented the encounter on this blog.

Perhaps due to my repeated blog-based engagement with him — like a fly that just won’t go away — Uwe took some interest in what I was doing on TIE. He noticed my many posts on hospital cost shifting and suggested that an updated literature review should be published. I counter-offered that we do it together, and he accepted.

I knew exactly what this meant. I was to write the first draft and he would serve as senior author and tell me how much more work it needed. Here’s where Uwe surprised me and earned my deepest respect. His response to my first draft was that it was so good he did not think it right that his name appear on it. Instead, I should publish it solo, with his support. This is good mentorship. It was my first solo-authored paper and is my most cited publication.

I met Uwe in person only once, in Princeton in 2010. I was there to visit my parents and give a talk at the Woodrow Wilson School. Learning I’d be in town, he invited me to lunch. I thought it was just going to be the two of us, but he insisted I bring my parents too — his treat. (In advance of the lunch, with some help from YouTube, I practiced how to pronounce his name. It’s “oo-va” not “you-ee.”)

Though I never saw him again in person, for years I encountered him over email. Usually our threads began with me asking a question or him sharing one of his lengthy emails to some other scholar or policymaker. (Oh, what a shame it is he didn’t post those emails for all to see. They were gems.) But frequently he would email out of the blue to inquire about my family. He took an interest in hearing what my children were up to and used that as an opportunity to remind me how different parenting or childhood was in his day.

“Child rearing is so different nowadays,” he wrote me once. “When we were little, we left the house after lunch and came home for supper, roaming the country side in the meantime (and playing with live ammunition [left over from WW II]).” I have very few folders of saved emails, but this one and others of his I filed away, not to be deleted.

Frequently, in the email back-and-forth that ensued he would type out some amazing story of past hijinks. Here’s one:

Once, at a Duke University private sector conference, the entire brass of the AMA happened to be there. It was my turn at the podium and I could not resist the following stunt.

The late James Sammons, then head of the AMA, had given interview in which he said Congress had carved Medicare to death like a turkey. I showed a slide of that quote which happened to have his picture next to it. I then showed data according to which between 1980 and 1988 constant-dollar Medicare spending on physician services per beneficiary rose 83%. Apologizing for this low number on behalf of taxpayers (the growth of 83% real allegedly did not permit physicians to give the elderly adequate care), I asked the AMA people: “What increase would have been adequate in your view?” So I counted out numbers (on a slide) like an auctioneer – 100%, 120% , …– but never got any takers. After +160% I left a blank spot and said: “Evidently 160% would not do it, so you give me the number. Is it 300%?” Icy silence. I then had a slide quoting country-music singer Conway Twitty or whoever it was from his song: “I need more of you (moolah) – more, anything less would not do.”

I then I ended saying that Karen Davis and I, both then serving on the PPRC (now Medpac) would propose a budget for Medicare physician payment (the VPS), because the docs would not come to the table with a reasonable number.

For a while I literally was banned at the AMA; but later I ended up on the JAMA board.

With tales like this, I thought of him as the Richard Feynman of health policy — brilliant in his field but with an appetite for adventure and practical jokes. I encouraged him many times to write up stories like these in a book, interwoven with health policy analysis or history. Sadly, he never did. Though he took pride in his past escapades, perhaps he saw himself differently late in his career.

“When I was younger I was more brash,” Uwe wrote me. “Now I’ve mellowed.”

There are many giants in academia, and many in health care. But there are none I know like Uwe.


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