He’s been a formidable force in politics and the media since his days as the teenage editor of Columbia University’s student newspaper.

But Paul Starr, 61, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, American Prospect magazine cofounder and Princeton sociology professor, is firmly rooted in a past infused with the lessons from his pediatrician father, who ran his busy office from the family’s Midwood, Brooklyn, home.

“My father died when I was 14 in 1964,” Starr said in a recent interview in New York City. “He used to spend mornings in Kings County [Medical Center] treating poor children for free. He told me that it was his way of giving back. So when I hear today of doctors complaining about not getting paid enough, I think of my dad getting nothing.”

Never has that spirit of generosity and commitment to caring resonated more than in Starr’s sixth book, Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform (Yale University Press). In it, this influential liberal scholar and writer chronicles America’s troubling history of resistance to health care reform and the battle to make health care the same right of citizenship that other Western countries have bestowed without question. He also challenges the U.S. to overcome its fears and distrust to protect the very patients his father treated—for free.

“We’ve gotten ourselves into a trap from the decisions we made in the mid-20th century about health care delivery,” Starr says. “Current [health care reform] legislation is not enough, but we can use that as a basis. The risk is that it’s going to be repealed.” And if that happens, Starr warns: “We’re heading into a desperate situation where millions of Americans without protection are going to lose the fight for health care. I haven’t given up hope. But at the moment, the political divisions make the solution very hard.”

Starr said his own path to the future once seemed a foregone conclusion. Not only was his father a doctor, his mother held a master’s in bacteriology—“which was pretty unusual for a woman born in 1907,” he notes—and worked, before her marriage, as a specialist in infectious diseases with the New York City Department of Health.

“I thought about becoming a doctor, but I was more interested in politics and history,” he says. “I went to Columbia in the late 1960s, was a reporter on the Spectator and then editor in 1968”—a heady time of student revolt. Starr was just 19.

But it was when Starr was in graduate school in sociology at Harvard that he reached back to his beginnings, with a report for Ralph Nader titled “The Discarded Army: Veterans After Vietnam.”

“It turned out that about half the book was about health programs,” he says. “By the time I finished that book I became interested in health care, and that led me to my dissertation and what would become The Social Transformation of American Medicine [Basic Books, 1982].” The landmark book won Starr a Pulitzer two years later.

Starr says a seminal moment in health care as a national issue took shape when he became an adviser to Harris Wofford, who won the 1991 special election to fill the seat vacated by the death of Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

“The issue [Wofford] emphasized was health care—it was a major concern,” he says. “And that race put health care on the front burner.” A year later, the issue came into the national spotlight.

“Many people became involved in the 1992 presidential campaign,“ he says, adding that initially he was an adviser to Bob Kerrey. “After the primaries, I got drawn into advising the Clinton campaign. After his election, I had an office in the Old Executive Office Building, and I was there from a week after the inauguration through the following September. It gave me an inside view—it was an extraordinary experience.”

Johanna Burke is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.