James Mongan, a doctor with political skills, dies at 69

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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Dr. James Mongan, a physician with a specialty in politics who for decades helped shape the health care debate in Washington, D.C., and the Commonwealth, and who formerly served as president of Massachusetts General Hospital and Partners HealthCare, died in MGH yesterday.

He was 69 and was diagnosed a few years ago with angiosarcoma, a relatively rare cancer that begins in the blood vessels.

From the administration of President Jimmy Carter, during which he worked on a national health care proposal, to his advocacy for health care changes in Massachusetts, Dr. Mongan made a career of finding ways to provide care for the poor and uninsured.

Dr. Gary L. Gottlieb, who became president and chief executive of Partners HealthCare when Dr. Mongan stepped down at the end of 2009, said his predecessor was “an extremely clear thinker’’ and “a magnificent problem solver’’ who played an essential role in guiding everyone from Beacon Hill politicians to those who managed the state’s medical infrastructure on how to proceed in the health care debate.

“I think he was a real architect of health care reform in Massachusetts,’’ Gottlieb said.

Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., president and chief executive of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said in a statement that Dr. Mongan “was a leader who helped transform health care in Massachusetts and around the nation. His focus on quality helped improve the overall standards of care at his own and other health care organizations, and he was a powerful advocate for making that care more accessible to all.’’

Dr. Mongan, who lived in the Chestnut Hill section of Brookline, also “was probably one of the kindest people I’ve ever met,’’ said his wife, the former Jean Holmes.

“He always made everybody feel good about themselves. His whole passion in life was health care for all, regardless of their ability to pay, and he felt very strongly about that, thank goodness,’’ she said.

“Jim was a tireless champion for making sure that everybody in our society got the care they needed and deserved,’’ said Dr. Peter L. Slavin, president of MGH.

“During the Massachusetts health reform debate . . . I think he played a very important role in convincing the people in state government to take this bold step of covering the vast majority of the people in the Commonwealth. This was the one cause he cared most deeply about,’’ he said.

Dr. Mongan, who was soft-spoken and analytical, was born in San Francisco, where he grew up in what he liked to describe as an Irish- Catholic family of liberal Democrats.

He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School there and attended the University of California Berkeley before switching to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1966 and a medical degree in 1967.

After medical school, he served two years as a medical officer in Denver with the US Public Health Service.

Combined with his later service in the Carter administration, he rose to the rank of rear admiral.

Though trained as a physician, Dr. Mongan found himself drawn to health policy.

“I liked biology and medicine, but I really liked politics, too,’’ he told Stanford Magazine, an alumni publication. “I was struck early on by the potential, at the intersection of the two, to be able to magnify the impact you might have.’’

Politics took him in 1970 to Washington, where Dr. Mongan served on the staff of the Senate Finance Committee, focusing on Medicare, Medicaid, and national health care proposals.

In 1977, he joined the Carter administration, working in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as deputy assistant secretary for health policy and special assistant to the secretary for developing a national health plan.

He finished the last years of the administration, beginning in 1979, by becoming assistant surgeon general and associate director for health and human resources on Carter’s domestic policy staff.

In 1981, Dr. Mongan began 15 years as head of Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., bolstering the public hospital’s flagging finances.

For much of that time, he also served as dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.

When Bill Clinton was elected president, his administration tried to bring Dr. Mongan back to Washington to work on a national health plan.

Having previously worked on a national plan that fizzled, Dr. Mongan declined to take a second shot.

“I didn’t want to see another train wreck,’’ he told the Globe in 2002, when he was hired to head Partners.

He was named president of MGH in 1996 and became president and chief executive of Partners in 2003.

As an administrator, he was a favorite of nurses and physicians. And while the changes he pushed for included making health care more efficient through the use of computers and emerging technology, Dr. Mongan was reluctant to make that part of his personal life, only making peace with cellphones in the past few years.

In 2007, he acknowledged in an interview with Boston Business Journal that he didn’t own a cellphone and that a secretary checked his e-mail.

“I used to be proud of that,’’ he joked to the reporter, adding, “I’m not anymore.’’

A service will be announced for Dr. Mongan, who, in addition to his wife, leaves a son, John of Washington, D.C.; a daughter, Sarah of Groton; a brother, Tom of Sausalito, Calif.; a sister, Peggy Murphy of Palo Alto, Calif.; and a grandson.

Dr. Mongan, who also formerly chaired the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, “never viewed his work in the singular; he believed success came from the power of working together,’’ Gottlieb wrote in an e-mail to Partners employees yesterday, announcing his predecessor’s death.

And Dr. Mongan never wavered in his belief that everyone could do more to help everyone else.

“How can a country as idealistic and generous as the United States fail repeatedly to accomplish in health care coverage what every other industrialized nation has achieved?’’ Dr. Mongan wrote in 2005 in a New England Journal of Medicine article he coauthored with Dr. Thomas Lee, president of Partners Community HealthCare, a physicians’ organization.

“One explanation may be that we are not so idealistic or generous as we would like to believe we are.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at