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In memoriam: Barney Speight

Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and other health policy leaders say Speight had a hand in key reforms that expanded access and coverage over his decades-long career
man standing wearing short sleeve button down shirt
Barney Speight played a major role in reforms to Oregon's health care system intended to lower costs and improve access. | COURTESY PHOTO
May 16, 2024

Many of us who have been engaged in the world of Oregon health care, health coverage and health policy sadly noted the death of Barney Speight, who would have turned 78 on May 12th. All of those involved in the efforts to transform and expand health care coverage in Oregon were fortunate to have worked alongside Barney. Without him, much of what was accomplished over the past 30 years would simply not have been possible. As one colleague noted, “He was a formidable, creative intellect. He had a real, intuitive sense of what worked and didn’t work in the world of health care.” 

Most Oregonians now have access to health care in large part because of his efforts, and far fewer families experience the crippling burden of medical debt. The obituary posted by the Oregonian recounted Barney’s varied and deep professional experience in senior positions with the Oregon Medical Association, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Kaiser Permanente and ODS/Moda. 

Barney also had a significant life in public service where he left a legacy anyone would envy. He was part of the team that developed the Oregon Health Plan, which provides health care coverage for the most vulnerable Oregonians. He was the executive director of the Oregon Health Fund Board, which laid out a comprehensive plan for addressing a broken health care system. The plan was aspirational and bold, developed in a time when one in six Oregonians were without health insurance coverage. It laid out a timeline that would first implement 100% access to health care for children, create the Oregon Health Authority as the infrastructure to support health care transformation and create a Health Insurance Exchange to finally achieve universal access to health care for everyone living in Oregon. We met the plan timelines with a sense of urgency and action, and Oregon approached 95% coverage by 2015.

Barney would be the first to say that none of this happened in a vacuum. Scores of Oregonians were involved. But Barney himself often said that an orchestra without a conductor can be a cacophony of sounds even with the most talented musicians. At several different times, Barney was that conductor.

It would be wrong to write about Barney and include only his policy or professional achievements. He was, more than anything, a mentor and a friend to so many of us. He gave freely of his time and wisdom—willing to share an incredible intellect that made us all better at our jobs. As we shared the news of his death and talked about this loss, story after story was told about the many times Barney had provided guidance and support to so many people. But Barney was as funny and entertaining as he was serious—with a quick sense of humor that carried us through many challenging times.

Barney was creative, mercurial, smart and giving. He was larger-than-life, and we see his enduring impact in every part of our state, through those he touched—and through the hundreds of thousands of people who have health care and health because of his commitment. 

We will miss his voice.

Tina Edlund previously worked on health care policy for multiple governors. Dr. Bruce Goldberg was the founding director of the Oregon Health Authority. Jeremy Vandehey is the Oregon market president for PacificSource Health Plans. Dr. John Kitzhaber is a former governor of Oregon. Mark Gibson is a health care policy advisor. 


Submitted by Michael Ralph … on Sun, 05/26/2024 - 06:35 Permalink

Barney was one of the best folks at the OHA we ever worked with in Dentistry. Thanks, Barney for all you did for Oregonians!!

Mike Shirtcliff DMD Past President/CEO Advantage Dental