Pete Stark, 40-year congressman who expanded health insurance, dies

Allen Cone
Pete Stark served in a northern California congressional district from 1972 to 2012. Photo by Fncis.chen/Wikimedia Commons
Pete Stark served in a northern California congressional district from 1972 to 2012. Photo by Fncis.chen/Wikimedia Commons

Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Fortney 'Pete' Stark, who represented northern California in the U.S. House for 40 years, including helping expand health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and COBRA, died Friday. He was 88.

Fortney H. "Fish" Stark III, told The Washington Post his father died at his home in Hardwood, Ma., from leukemia.


"Congressman Pete Stark was a master legislator who used his gavel to give a voice to the voiceless, and he will be deeply missed by Congress, Californians and all Americans," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also a Democrat from Calif., {link:said in a statement. : "" target="_blank"} "Congressman Stark dedicated his life to defending every American's right to quality, affordable health care."

As a leader of the Health Subcommittee on the Ways and Means Committee, in 1986 he created the COBRA initiative to "help working Americans maintain their coverage during times of financial insecurity," including when they lose their jobs, according to Pelosi.

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He also was the architect of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which ensured hospitals must treat all people seeking emergency treatment regardless of their coverage.

More recently, he helped write portions of the Affordable Care Act in 2008 under President Barack Obama.

"Personally and professionally, I was proud to work with Pete to pass the Affordable Care Act, which stands as a pillar of health and economic security in America today," Pelosi said.

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Stark, who became the first declared atheist in Congress in 2007, supported laws that barred discriminating against LGBTQ people in adoptions, as well as paid family leave.

"'Feisty' is a good word for him, and in some ways he was a contrarian," Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University, said Saturday. "By marching to his own beat, he might have made people feel uncomfortable, but in a time when so many people are measured and careful in what they say, he was remarkable for his candor."

In 1972, he unseated Rep. George P. Miller in a district in East Bay between Oakland and San Jose.

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In 2012, he lost a bid for reelection to Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell in 2012 and retired.

"Pete Stark gave the East Bay decades of public service as a voice in Congress for working people," Swalwell posted on Twitter. "His knowledge of policy, particularly health care, & his opposition to unnecessary wars demonstrated his deep care and spirit. Our community mourns his loss."

Before serving in Congress, he founded Security National in the 1960s which he described as "a bank whose sole purpose was to fulfill the financial needs of working people." It was reportedly the first in the country to offer free checking.

Stark graduated in 1953 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then served in the Air Force before receiving a master's degree of business administration from the University of California at Berkeley in 1960.

Notable deaths of 2020

Richard "Dick" Thornburgh, former attorney general of the United States and former governor of Pennsylvania, takes a seat at the witness hearing after U.S. Chief Justice nominee Judge John Roberts testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2005. Thornburgh died on December 31 at age 88. Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI

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