With a sharp mind and compassion for the well-being of children, senior citizens, and the poor, Joanne Bluestone helped create a safety net for the most vulnerable residents of Massachusetts, and she paved the way for many women who followed her into the health care field.
A former director of the state’s Medicaid program under Governor Michael S. Dukakis, she told the Globe in 1990 that the program should “try to provide as close to a single standard of care as we could for all people.”
“We ought to be able to assure that poor people have the same rights to care as people who have money,” she said.
Mrs. Bluestone died Oct. 15 of complications from a fall in Our Lady of Peace, a care facility in Charlottesville, Va., where she had lived since 2009. She was 87 and had spent most of her life in Greater Boston.
“You meet a lot of people in state government, but Joanne struck me as being one terrific professional,” Dukakis said. “She really stood out as someone who was hard-working, committed, and cared deeply about the people she was working for.”
Mrs. Bluestone, he added, was “a model for what a great public servant ought to be.”
Earlier, as assistant commissioner of public health, she had managed the state’s seven chronic disease hospitals, as well as programs for alcoholism and family health services.
In 1983, when she became director of Medicaid in Massachusetts, the $1.2 billion program was the most costly part of the state’s budget.
Mrs. Bluestone “had an awful lot to do with creating a new kind of effective health care system,” Dukakis said, adding that “she put us on the right path.”
She brought to the Medicaid program nearly 40 years of experience in health care research, delivery, regulation, policy planning, and management. Mrs. Bluestone had worked at Massachusetts General Hospital and at what is now Boston Children’s Hospital, where for a decade she was associate director for patients’ professional services.
As head of Medicaid, one of her challenges was persuading doctors to accept low-income patients.
“I think I must be candid,” Mrs. Bluestone said during a State House hearing in 1985. “I think there is a backlash against the poor. There are issues that related to cultural and ethnic kinds of things.”
Throughout her career, she was a highly regarded champion for the poor, the elderly, and the young.
Dr. Eli Newberger, a pediatrician, said he met Mrs. Bluestone at Children’s Hospital around 1970, when “social and family issues” were rarely addressed in hospitals, and staff steered clear of cases of suspected child abuse or neglect. He said Mrs. Bluestone was instrumental in developing policies that changed that approach.
“At the time, there were many people who didn’t want these children to stay in the hospital,” he said. “But this was the only way we felt these kids could be protected. Joanne articulated wisdom, provided guidance, and participated actively in all the discussions.”
The hospital’s “ethical, if not moral, obligation” to children facing abuse would “never have been translated into policy were it not for Joanne,” Newberger said. “I believe she helped save more than a few lives. She was a wonderful woman, guided by her own concern for the health and welfare of children.”
Born Joanne Baxter in 1925 in Alliance, Ohio, she grew up in a Methodist parsonage, raised by her paternal grandparents. She arrived in Boston in the 1940s and took her first job as a secretary at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In 1949 she married Max Bluestone, and they settled in Newton to raise a family. The marriage ended in divorce and he died in 1981.
Their daughter Deborah of Brookline said Mrs. Bluestone was a consummate professional who “broke the glass ceiling for women in health care administration,” and that she was a mentor to many.
“She talked about her work all the time,” she said. “It was wonderful for us to hear about all of the things she was doing to effect change.”
Mrs. Bluestone also had been a senior research associate and director of the master’s in human services management program at what is now the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Later, she was senior vice president of the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston.
A private service is planned for Mrs. Bluestone, who in addition to her daughter Deborah leaves another daughter, Rebecca Bluestone Epstein of Berkeley, Calif.; a son, Daniel of Charlottesville, Va.; a brother, Gregory Pond of Austin, Texas; and five grandchildren.
Mrs. Bluestone received numerous awards and volunteered extensively. She served on the boards of many organizations, including Hearth, which is dedicated to ending homelessness among the elderly. In 1991, she and six other women created the Committee to End Elder Homelessness, which led to founding Hearth.
“I never knew anyone who was so deeply committed to the needs of the poor and unwanted, and also so extremely able to go to public officials and speak authoritatively,” said Anna Bissonnette, another of the founders. “She gave so much of herself, her wisdom, and her heart to the people of the Commonwealth.”