Sen. Kennedy’s Widow, Son Attend Celebration of Health Policy Chair Named in His Honor

Special from The Record

Nov. 23, 2010Bookmark and Share

It didn’t take long for the discussion to turn to the recently enacted health care reform legislation at a recent event inaugurating the Edward M. Kennedy Chair for Health Policy at Columbia University School of Nursing. Health care, after all, was the topic Kennedy once called “the cause of my life.”

Mary O'Neil Mundinger, who holds the new Edward M. Kennedy Chair for Health Policy, was dean of Columbia's School of Nursing from 1986 to 2009.
Mary O'Neil Mundinger, who holds the new Edward M. Kennedy Chair for Health Policy, was dean of Columbia's School of Nursing from 1986 to 2009.

Victoria Kennedy, widow of the late senator; his son Edward M. Kennedy Jr.; and his sister Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith attended the Nov. 16 event at the Italian Academy celebrating the appointment of Mary O'Neil Mundinger as the first professor to hold the chair.

Mundinger, dean of Columbia’s School of Nursing from 1986 until last year, said her first order of business would be to “help educate people about the value and necessity of our fragile new health reform legislation.”

“The time is right for a great leap forward in health care,” she said. “With the shining and immutable light of Ted Kennedy’s achievements showing me the path, this will be a most exciting journey.”

Mundinger, who holds a doctorate in public health from the Mailman School of Public Health, spent a year in Washington in 1984 working for the Massachusetts senator on the Senate health committee.

In her address, she shared some of her memories about working for him. Once, after reading her proposal for a $1 tax to address a looming vaccine shortage, he “took off his glasses and looked at me,” then tossed it into the wastebasket, she said. He said the idea might be worth considering, but it was a tax issue and belonged in the Finance Committee.

“This was one of the many lessons I learned and subsequently incorporated in my work: There is much to be done that is worthwhile, but you must concentrate your energies where you have the environment and standing to accomplish the most good,” she said.

Heeding Kennedy’s advice, Mundinger said she would focus on her mission to advance nursing’s role in society. One of her goals is to expand the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, which she helped to create at Columbia to alleviate a national shortage of primary care clinicians. More than 300 schools have since established similar clinical doctorate programs.

“Millions of new people who are going to be given access to care and can’t find a clinician are in for a very tough time,” she said. “We have the answer in nursing.”

Victoria Kennedy also spoke at the event, noting that her husband became deeply committed to health care after his son lost a leg to bone cancer at age 12. Seeing other families struggle with medical bills as they endured similar experiences deeply affected him.

“He felt that no parent should ever have to worry about how they’re going to take care of their child in a life-or-death situation,” she said. Kennedy also believed that nurses “would play an incredibly important and increasing role in primary care,” she added.

The younger Kennedy noted that his father developed a lifelong appreciation of the important work nurses do when he spent months in the hospital after a 1964 plane crash. “He recognized that that’s where the primary care delivery system is,” he said.

Kennedy died of brain cancer in August 2009, before the passage of the national health care reform legislation he had long championed. His son said he would have viewed the legislation as the first step in a larger process. “He knew that fixing health care was not an easy thing to do,” he said.

Victoria Kennedy added that he wouldn’t have been discouraged by the widespread criticism of the legislation sometimes derided as “Obamacare.” “It never frustrated Teddy,” she said. “He was always looking to the future.”

—by Candace Taylor

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Milestones

Columbia University mourns the death of Robert Belknap, professor emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages, who died March 17. An expert in Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky, he also taught Literature Humanities in the Core Curriculum for 50 years and influenced generations of Columbia students. For more information, please visit this page.

Mary Bassett, associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, was named New York City’s commissioner of health.

University Professor Ronald Breslow won the 2014 American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, the AIC’s highest award.

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