E. Richard (Rick) Brown, a nationally recognized public health leader who advocated for health care reform and pioneered the collection and broad dissemination of health survey data to influence policy, died Friday, April 20. He was 70.
As a past president of the American Public Health Association and a member of dozens of health advisory committees and boards, and through his work for two U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and three U.S. senators (Bob Kerrey, Paul Wellstone and Bill Bradley), Brown forged a reputation for his intense determination to make health care services more accessible and more affordable to all Americans.
He was a tireless advocate for the uninsured, and he promoted the development of health data surveys to both dispel persistent myths about the uninsured and document the devastating consequences of the chronic lack of health insurance for millions of Americans.
Brown, who received his doctorate at UC Berkeley, was a professor in the departments of health services and community health sciences at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health and founder of the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS), the nation's largest state health survey and a critical source of information for California and national lawmakers.
Brown was also the founding director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, which was formed in 1994 to translate academic research into practical evidence that policy audiences and community health organizations could use in their work. Central to this vision was the concept of credible and comprehensive data that could make a non-partisan case for policies and programs aimed at improving the health and well-being of all Californians and the nation.
In 2001, the Center for Health Policy Research produced the first CHIS data from interviews with more than 55,000 California households, creating in the process a wealth of health data on the nation's most populous and diverse state. Subsequent iterations of the survey followed from 2003 to 2009. CHIS has become an essential source for policymakers, advocates, researchers, media and others interested in understanding the health of Californians and that of previously under-studied ethnic, racial, disabled and sexual minority groups.
"Rick Brown has left a tremendous mark on the field of public health," said Linda Rosenstock, dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. "Rick was a passionate teacher, an innovative and acclaimed scholar, and a formidable advocate for health. The creation of CHIS stands out among his many professional accomplishments. It is without question the leading source of self-reported health data in California used by policymakers to identify problems and allocate resources."
CHIS data and research by the center have been at the heart of some of the state's and nation's most pressing health policy debates. CHIS findings were used extensively by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and both parties in the Legislature during California's first attempt to institute comprehensive health care reform in 2007 and 2008. CHIS-based research also focused national attention, in 2010, on the problem of recession-driven loss of insurance by many and helped propel the passage of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) that year. Since then, California lawmakers have used CHIS to help prepare for the implementation of the ACA in 2014.
CHIS data and center research have also been the cornerstone of dozens of California laws and initiatives, including efforts to increase participation in the federal food-stamp program; develop new public–private expansion programs for children ineligible for private insurance, Medi-Cal or Healthy Families; collect health data on sexual minorities; impose a fast-food restaurant moratorium in impoverished areas of Los Angeles; and remove soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages from schools and government vending machines.
"There are few areas of public health in California that Rick has not, in some way, touched, influenced or informed," said Dr. Robert K. Ross, CEO and president of The California Endowment. "He understood that good-quality information was the engine that powered all the things he cared most passionately about, from expanding health insurance coverage to feeding and caring for the state's poorest and most marginalized residents.
Brown's passion for health policy was rooted in harsh personal experience. He was born to Eastern European immigrant parents in a working-class community in Plainfield, N.J., and moved to Southern California at an early age. His father was a union and social-justice organizer on the East and West coasts. Times were often hard for the family. At one point, they all lived in a tent behind their friends' restaurant. Brown's parents separated when he was 12, and he and his brother were raised by their single mother, Sylvia, who worked as a bookkeeper.
When his brother smashed his bike into a tree and needed medical care, Brown got his first taste of what it was like to be poor and without basic health coverage.
"My mother always remembered the stigma she felt when the eligibility workers at the county hospital grilled her about her income and were very demeaning to her because she couldn't pay the medical bills," he would remember later.
That firsthand experience of being a medical "charity case" inspired him to not only study public health but to link it to ways to improve health coverage for all.
As an activist, Brown co-authored California's first single-payer health care legislation in 1990 and co-wrote several other health-care reform bills in the 1990s and 2000s, which helped shape the policy and political dialogue on health care reform during those decades.
"Throughout his full life, he looked for ways to build bridges between the most underserved Californians and the people who were supposed to help them — lawmakers, academics, advocates," said Gerald Kominski, the current director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, since Brown stepped down in January. "For Rick, helping people was a personal mission."
Teased by his family that he was "a serious man," Brown had a broad smile and deep-throated laugh that was infectious. His ever-present generosity of spirit made him beloved by many, including his wife of 46 years, Marianne Parker Brown, his daughters Delia Brown and Adrienne Faxio, his son-in-law John Faxio, his granddaughter Makeda, and his brother Julian Horowitz.