David A. Jones Sr., who borrowed $1,000 to launch a nursing home company that grew into the $37 billion health insurance and health care giant Humana Inc., died Wednesday at age 88.
Jones, an amateur boxer in his youth, was a staunch defender of for-profit health care and became known for his civic-mindedness in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where Humana’s headquarters tower stands out in the skyline.
Jones served as Humana’s chief executive for 37 years and its Board chairman for 44 years. He oversaw the company’s transformation from a nursing home company to a hospital company and then into one of the nation’s leading health insurance corporations.
Jones’ death, barely more than a month after the death of his longtime wife, Betty, prompted an outpouring of tributes from Kentucky’s political leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell remembered Jones for his “brilliance and determination,” as well as his kindness and generosity.
“I can say without exaggeration that David was the single most influential friend and mentor I’ve had in my entire career,” the Kentucky Republican leader said in a statement. “I’ve never forgotten something he told me when I was starting out in Jefferson County: ‘The most important word in the English language is ‘focus.’”
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin tweeted: “In the course of a lifetime, a person would be fortunate to ever meet someone of the combined intellect, generosity, humility and all-around caliber of David A. Jones. He was a true giant among men.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who represents the Louisville area, said Jones was a “philanthropic champion” whose generosity “touched nearly every single facet of our community, from our thriving arts scene to our parks system.”
Jones co-founded the company that would become Humana along with Wendell Cherry in 1961, investing $1,000 apiece. Four others also put in $1,000 each.
The company later transitioned from nursing homes to hospitals, eventually owning more than 100 hospitals at its peak and employing 45,000 people, the Courier Journal reported.
Humana moved into the health insurance business in the 1980s. In 1993, the hospital side of the company was sold, making Humana a stand-alone health insurer.
Humana currently employs more than 40,000 people in the U.S. Besides its health insurance business, Humana owns more than 200 health care clinics across the country.
As Humana’s co-founder, Jones “planted a seed that today has grown into a company that serves millions of people in their health-care needs,” Humana President and CEO Bruce Broussard said in a statement Wednesday.
Cherry died in 1991.
Jones staunchly defended for-profit health care during his long career. He insisted on calling Humana a “taxpaying hospital” — and derided nonprofit health-care organizations as sanctimonious, the Courier Journal reported.
“The notion that being nonprofit adds some kind of weight to what you do is baloney,” he said. “Whoever is not paying taxes on profits has the moral issue, not those of us who are paying taxes.”
One thing remained constant during the company’s transformations — it has always been based in Louisville, where Jones was known for his civic outreach.
A Courier Journal profile of him in 1997 noted that he built affordable housing, put computers in schools, supported an international play festival, helped launch an African American business venture fund and improved parks.
“Whenever a local need had everybody else stumped, David always seemed to end up in the thick of it, forging a path to success,” McConnell said Wednesday.