Uwe Reinhardt, an economist whose keen, caustic and unconventional insights cast him as what colleagues called a national conscience in policy debates about health care, died on Monday in Princeton, N.J. He was 80.
The cause was sepsis, his wife, Tsung-Mei Cheng, said. He had taught in the economics department at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University since 1968.
Professor Reinhardt helped shape health care deliberations for decades as a prolific contributor to numerous publications, an adviser to White House and congressional policymakers, a member of federal and professional commissions and a consultant and board member, paid and unpaid, for private industry.
“His work was instrumental in advocating some of the reforms embodied in the Affordable Care Act, such as having Medicare pay for performance rather than entirely on a fee-for-service basis,” Professor Janet Currie, the chairwoman of the Princeton economics department, wrote in an email.
Another colleague, Stuart H. Altman, a professor at Brandeis University, wrote, “No one was close to him in terms of impact on how we should think about how a decent health care system should operate.”
In 2015, the Republic of China awarded Professor Reinhardt its Presidential Prize for having devised Taiwan’s single-payer National Health Insurance program. The system now provides virtually the entire population with common benefits and costs 6.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (about one-third the share that the United States spends).
Just last month, he received the 2017 Bipartisan Health Policy Leadership Award from the Alliance for Health Policy, a nonpartisan research and educational group in Washington.
Professor Reinhardt argued that what drove up the singularly high cost of health care in the United States was not the country’s aging population or a surplus of physicians or even Americans’ self-indulgent visits to doctors and hospitals.
“I’m just an immigrant, so maybe I am missing something about the curious American health care system,” he would often say, recalling his childhood in Germany and flight to Canada and apologizing that English was only his second language.
Then he would succinctly answer the cost question by quoting the title of an article he wrote with several colleagues in 2003 for the journal Health Affairs: “It’s the Prices, Stupid.”
What propelled those prices most, he said, was a chaotic market that operates “behind a veil of secrecy.”
That market, he said, is one in which employers “become the sloppiest purchasers of health care anywhere in the world,” as he wrote in the Economix blog in The New York Times in 2013.
It is also defined by the high cost of prescription drugs, he said, and the astronomical amounts that hospitals spend in dealing with a maze of insurers and health maintenance organizations.
“Our hospitals spend twice as much on administration as any hospital anywhere in the world because of all of this complexity,” he told Managed Care magazine in 2013.
If the nation cut the cost of health care administration in half, he said, the savings would be enough to insure everyone.
Professor Reinhardt’s prescription for a more sensible system included imposing penalties on the uninsured so that people would not postpone buying policies until they got sick. That idea, the so-called individual mandate, requiring most people to purchase health insurance, became an integral component of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Republicans in Congress are now seeking to repeal that provision as part of a tax overhaul.
Professor Reinhardt also advocated providing government subsidies so that low-income families could afford mandated insurance, another feature of Obamacare.
His ideal model was the German system in which insurers negotiate with health care providers to set common binding prices in a specific region.
“I believe it is still the best model there is, because it blends a private health care delivery system with universal coverage and social solidarity,” he told The Times in 2009. “It’s inexpensive and equitable. Coverage is portable. You’re never uninsured in Germany. No family goes broke over health care bills.”
Always opinionated, Professor Reinhardt was also unsparing in inflicting his mordant wit on any self-satisfied expert he considered hypocritical or illogical.
“He was a knife twister of the first class,” the health economist Austin Frakt wrote on the blog The Incidental Economist, of which he is an editor in chief. “Should you hold dearly an idea he targeted for systematic dismantling, you would squirm.”
Professor Reinhardt excoriated college students who blamed loneliness for their binge drinking, describing them as “among the most pampered and highly privileged human beings on the planet.” He suggested that before applying for college young people “be required to spend one to two years in a tough job in the real world.”
And when critics complained that doctors were overpaid, he countered that their collective take-home pay amounted to only 10 percent of national health spending. Slicing it by 20 percent, he wrote, “would reduce total national health spending by only 2 percent, in return for a wholly demoralized medical profession to which we so often look to save our lives.
“It strikes me as a poor strategy,” he added.
With near unanimity, colleagues and admirers praised Professor Reinhardt for transforming raw data into moral imperatives.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who advocates a “Medicare for all” national health care system, wrote in an email, “Uwe Reinhardt was one of the leaders in the effort to make health care a right, not a privilege.”
And Professor Elliott S. Fisher of Dartmouth called Professor Reinhardt “in so many ways the conscience of the U.S. health care system.”
Uwe (pronounced OO-vuh) Ernst Reinhardt was born on Sept. 24, 1937, in the city of Osnabrück in northwest Germany. His father, Wilhelm, was a chemical engineer. His mother, the former Edeltraut Kehne, was a photographer and painter.
He was raised near the Belgian border and the Hürtgen forest, where American and German soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat for four months in 1944.
“I could not help but become witness daily to the horrors of war,” Professor Reinhardt wrote in 2003 in a Times Op-Ed article, praising a Marine chaplain for urging soldiers to pray for their enemies ad well as themselves. “Millions of Europeans of my generation, whom many Americans now disparage so contemptuously as pacifists, had a similar experience.”
His exposure to the war so dismayed him that in the mid-1950s, at 18, rather than be drafted into the army and have to salute a German officer in the wake of “the unimaginable atrocities committed by Nazi Germany” years earlier, his wife said, he left the country, setting off for Canada and leaving his parents and four siblings behind.
He landed in Montreal with $90 in his pocket and no Canadian connections. Having had some apprentice training in shipping in Germany, he found work at a shipping company and worked nights parking cars in a parking lot. He always ate oatmeal for breakfast because it was cheap, his wife said, and to make extra money he routinely volunteered to work overtime for co-workers who had families.
After three years, he had saved enough money to enroll, hundreds of miles away, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the cheapest university he knew of, Ms. Cheng said. (Selling his used Chevrolet and beloved guitar helped defray the costs.)
He graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree and went on to Yale, where he received his doctorate. His thesis was titled “An Economic Analysis of Physicians’ Practices.”
In addition to Ms. Cheng, a health policy research analyst at Princeton who is known as May, he is survived by their children, Dirk, Kara and Mark Reinhardt; his sisters, Heide Cermin and Imeltraut Arndt; his brother, Jurgen; and two grandchildren.
Professor Reinhardt joined the Princeton faculty in 1968 as an assistant professor. At his death, he was the James Madison professor of political economy and professor of economics and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School.
“He was so inspired a teacher,” said Henry J. Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the research organization in Washington, “that he could make accounting the most popular course at Princeton.” Among his students was Bill Frist, a surgeon and a former Republican Senate majority leader from Tennessee.
In 2015, Professor Reinhardt humbly — and facetiously — announced that after reflecting on the global economic crisis that had occurred several years earlier, he was calling it quits.
“After the near-collapse of the world’s financial system has shown that we economists really do not know how the world works, I am much too embarrassed to teach economics anymore,” he wrote.
In an interview not long before that, though, he belied any pretense of self-doubt when he was asked whether he was perplexed by the seemingly insolvable challenges of health care economics.
“Have you ever seen a perplexed economist?” Professor Reinhardt replied. “We have an answer for everything.”