President James A. Donahue, Kaiser CEO Bernard J. Tyson and Dean Zhan LiAddressing one of the most important and contentious issues in contemporary American politics—health care reform—Saint Mary’s School of Economics and Business Administration (SEBA) hosted Bernard J. Tyson, Chief Executive Officer of Kaiser Permanente Foundation Hospitals and Health Plan, as part of its Executive Speaker Series.

Following an introduction by Dean Zhan Li and President James A. Donahue, Tyson spoke for an hour to 150 students, alumni, faculty and guests in Claeys Lounge, broadly discussing the evolving landscape of the American health care system and its emerging challenges and opportunities. Eschewing a podium, Tyson stood squarely in front of the audience, sharing with them the origin story of Kaiser Permanente, his own personal history with the organization and his vision of the future of health care in America. After his discussion, the CEO was available for questions from the Saint Mary’s community.

“People ask me all the time, ‘are we focused on doing everything we can to maximize profitability?’ and the answer I always give them is ‘no,’” said the CEO.

Bernard J. Tyson at Saint Mary's School of Economics and Business Administration's Executive Speaker Series September 19, 2013“We are simply trying to do good,” Tyson said of Kaiser Permanente, an organization with over six million Californians enrolled in their programs and nine million total members across the country.  “We are trying to provide the highest quality care to the largest number of people at the lowest price.”

 “We are not perfect,” he said. “But our goals, mission and vision are correctly aligned.”

Tyson addressed a myriad of problems within the American health care system, including the millions of Americans who had been “locked out of the front door of the health care system,” the expensive nature of emergency room care, the increasing cost of health care, and the devastating effect of still relying on an outdated, paper-bound system of records. The CEO also acknowledged the sobering fact that although Americans are now spending a staggering 18% of gross national product on health care, 50 million citizens don’t have any health coverage at all. He also made note of an additional 50 million Americans that have insurance but are under covered.

Despite the size and complexity of the issues, Tyson illustrated plenty of silver linings.

“We have some of the best people in this field. We have the best people working in episodic care and we have the best people doing cutting-edge research,” said Tyson. He also spoke on the continued efforts of Kaiser Permanente to digitize their records, a process that allows patients to be seen quicker and more effectively, saving thousands of lives every year.

Audience at Executive Speaker Series September 19, 2013

When addressing the recent Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act and its California specific adaptation “Covered California” Tyson said, “Over the next several years seven million Californians who didn’t have health care will be covered. During that same time 25-30 million Americans will also be covered. It’s going have a lasting effect on the health care industry.” Tyson detailed some of those effects, including how the introduction of private plans, narrow networks and disruptors would shape health care going forward.

“The financing system of health care will be turned upside down,” he said. “The fee-for-service system needs to be revamped and the right incentive system needs to be put in place to further these changes.”

The keynote ended with a simple but poignant message. “What people really want is to live healthy lives. That sounds easy, but it is actually extremely difficult,” Tyson said, before elaborating on the difficulties posed by the convenience of the American lifestyle such as poor diet, lack of exercise and an increase in stress.

In the final question of the designated forum, Tyson was asked about if he was optimistic about overcoming the political resistance to health care reform.

“I’m both optimistic and pessimistic,” he said, recounting a story where a colleague of his once told him that a glass cannot be half-empty without also being half-full.  “Our history as a nation shows that eventually we figure it out. Every major social program or movement has faced resistance in its time—it zigs and zags before it comes to pass. [The implementation of health care reform] is only the first chapter of this story.”

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