Skip Navigation

Donald Light - Award Statement

Over the past 35 years, Professor Don Light has applied his training in medical and organizational sociology toward the goal of reducing barriers to health care among disadvantaged populations. After leaving the sociology department at Princeton in 1975, he became a senior social scientist with the Sophie Davis School for Biomedical Education in Harlem that was dedicated to teaching students to assess the health needs of a community and address those not being met. The program provided integrated college and medical school training at low cost to many talented minority and lower-income high school students and was and continues to be successful in graduating most of its students with BS and MD degrees.

This work led to an appointment in 1980 as professor and director of community medicine at the School of Osteopathic Medicine, University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, where Professor Light taught community medicine to medical students and two federally funded health centers were established. During this time, he discovered that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey was violating its charter to provide community-rate, level premiums to individuals and small groups through rates that discriminated by race, gender, and age. He organized a campaign to stop the increases. NOW, NAACP, and AARP joined in a large, statewide coalition. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund took the case to the Public Advocate and eventually won, rolling back premiums for 600,000 people. In the following 2 years, Blue Cross tried other tactics and successful campaigns were organized against each. For these efforts, Professor Light won the President’s Award from the New Jersey Public Health Association, a University Excellence Award for Community Service, and a Certificate of Merit from the American Public Health Association.

Because of this advocacy work, Professor Light began to write about the ethics of health insurance, and in 1990 he was accepted as a visiting fellow at Oxford where he studied social ethics. At the time, Margaret Thatcher launched a radical restructuring of England’s National Health Service (NHS) from a public service to a series of contracts between purchasers and providers in order to create managed competition, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. Professor Light wrote a series of critical articles on how these changes would increase management costs as well as inequalities. He coined the term “pernicious competition” to characterize how competition in health care usually increases barriers to access and drives up costs, rather than increasing efficiencies. He applied his expertise to various parts of the NHS and was invited to be the overseas member of the planning committee for the 50th anniversary of the NHS. He also co-authored an anniversary monograph with Tony Blair. Over the years, Professor Light campaigned against managed competition reforms in Europe. This work led to a special issue of Social Science & Medicine in 2001 describing the troubling experiences that many countries face from the pernicious effects of competition policy which threaten to create barriers to access.

As a founding fellow of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, Professor Light also became concerned about price barriers for access to drugs and vaccines among lower-income patients. Since 2000, he has undertaken critical research on claims by the pharmaceutical industry that huge R&D costs force companies to charge high prices, and further that U.S. prices are so high because European prices are too low to recover costs. One campaign with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) set out to document that global companies had lower research costs than they claimed for important new vaccines against rotavirus and ultimately recovered these costs within two years. PAHO successfully used this research to reduce prices for infant vaccination by 75 percent in the Pan American countries.

Most recently, Professor Light’s work has focused on the harmful side effects of prescription drugs. His latest book, The Risks of Prescription Drugs, which was commissioned by the Social Science Research Council, assembles evidence which shows that such side effects are a leading cause of accidents, hospitalization, and the 4th leading cause of death in the United States. The AARP Bulletin made the risks of drugs its cover story in the September 2011 issue that went out to 42 million seniors. He demonstrated that the barriers to access need to be higher, by approving drugs that are clinically superior and safer. This work led to a fellowship for Professor Light this year at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

For these accomplishments which highlight only a portion of an extraordinary career over the past 4 decades, the committee is proud to name Professor Donald W. Light as the recipient of the 2012 ASA Distinguished Career for the Practice of Sociology Award.