Contributing Voices

Health Advocates Can Learn Commitment to Social Justice From Merck CEO, Kenneth Frazier

Louis Tharp
Global Healthy Living Foundation

Kenneth Frazier, Merck’s CEO, is not a newcomer to social justice. That is probably why he was ready to speak out first after Charlottesville and resign from the President’s American Manufacturing Council while Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric and others stayed quiet, perhaps afraid of the consequences of a POTUS Twitter storm. (Immelt did eventually quit but just before Trump disbanded the council and another advisory panel of business leaders, the Strategic and Policy Forum.)

Frazier’s is an amazing story.

He grew up in Philadelphia as the son of a janitor, but he has described his father as one of the most intelligent men he has ever known. He graduated from Penn State and Harvard Law School and went on to become a partner at the prestigious Philadelphia law firm, Drinker, Biddle & Reath. He was picked for the top job at Merck after orchestrating the company’s legal strategy in the Vioxx litigation.

While at Drinker Biddle he worked pro bono on the overturning of the death penalty conviction of  James Willie “Bo” Cochran. This week, many news outlets have quoted Frazier’s 2004 essay for the American Bar Association. “It became obvious,” Frazier wrote, “that one of the major factors contributing to Bo's conviction centered around the fact that each of his jury trials was distorted when viewed through the lens of race.”

Speaking out against Nazis and their peers does not seem to have been a philosophical or emotional stretch for this person of color who has spent summer sabbaticals teaching trial advocacy in South Africa. Nor did it appear to be an anxiety-producing decision for his board.

We will continue to need strong voices in health care. Patients will demand them. This week, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the budget deficit will increase by $194 billion, premiums would spike by 20%, and approximately 5% of Americans would live in areas where they wouldn't be able to purchase insurance altogether if ACA cost-sharing subsidies are eliminated. The country needs patient advocates to keep that from happening. And that is just one area where patient advocates need to turn up the volume.

And patient advocates are not limited to groups like ours. Patient advocates can include  pharma, payers, all levels government, and, yes, healthy people, some of whom can’t imagine that they will—not might, but will—become sick and need health care someday.

Our health care system narrowly escaped chaos a couple weeks ago because three Republican senators—Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski—chose to speak up and not go along with legislation that would have wreaked havoc.

I hope people like Kenneth Frazier will also continue to speak up.

In 1939, Merck agreed to give patent rights to streptomycin to the Rutgers Endowment Foundation so any company could produce the new antibiotic. Streptomycin would save the lives of hundreds of millions of people over the next several decades. George Merck wasn’t afraid to say people come before profits.

Neither is Mr. Frazier.

Louis Tharp is the executive director and co-founder of the Global Healthy Living Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for people with chronic illness