In Virginia, a push for more patient voices on health reform panel

Healthcare advocates in Virginia are calling on state leaders to lend greater voice to patients as a new panel drafts strategies for implementing healthcare reform.

"I understand that the administration wanted [the panel] to consist largely of people with day-to-day expertise on implementation and health-care delivery," Mira Signer, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "But it seems like they're really missing the mark with not having uninsured and underinsured people who have not been able to get care as part of the panel from the get-go."

Those patients, Signer added, "are the people who can really describe very accurately what's really wrong with the system, what's missing, what really needs to be addressed and what works well."

Last week, Va. Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) named the 24 members of the new commission — the Virginia Health Reform Initiative Advisory Council — charged with recommending ways for the state to lower health costs and expand access to care. The panel's focus will be the Democrats' new health reform law, but members will also look more broadly at strategies for improving healthcare statewide.

The council includes administration officials, elected lawmakers, doctors, insurers, private healthcare consultants, an oil company representative and the head of a pest control company — but no consumer groups.

Some Virginia residents are questioning that design.

"The people who provide the services have one perspective and the people who use the services have another perspective," Sarah Williams, a Virginian who supported the Democrats' health reform law, wrote to the editor of her local paper. "I don't think that with a one-sided panel that the consumer interest will be reflected."

Bill Hazel, head of McDonnell's health department and chair of the new advisory council, told the Times-Dispatch that patients are well represented — because all panel members are patients themselves. 

"The system is very complicated," he told the Richmond paper, "and the political blocks to improving it are going to come from people with vested interests."