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Health Reform Expert Peter Harbage Dies

Health policy expert Peter Harbage died late Wednesday night in Sacramento at age 43 after a battle with leukemia.

“Peter is the unsung architect of health care reform in the United States,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, in a written statement. “For two decades, Peter has been on the front lines of the work to improve our health system.”

Harbage was the senior health policy advisor to John Edwards, the former U.S. Senator from North Carolina. When Edwards was a 2004 presidential candidate, he came up with a unique strategy for health care coverage, and many of the tenets of that plan have been adopted in the current health care reform effort.

In California he served as the Assistant Secretary for Health in the Health and Human Services agency under Gov. Gray Davis (D). He also worked with the health care reform team under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

More recently, as head of Harbage Consulting, he helped coordinate the extensive stakeholder outreach effort for the Department of Health Care Services.

That work spoke to the level of trust and respect he received from all sides of health care policy world — bridging the charged and often-heated positions between stakeholders and state health care officials. 

“Peter Harbage has improved the lives of countless people through his generosity as a friend, advisor and policymaker,” said Mari Cantwell, chief deputy director at the Department of Health Care Services. “He was intelligent and passionate about our work to improve and expand health care to Californians in need, and we are grateful that he shared his time and knowledge with us.”

Harbage also worked in the Clinton Administration as a health care financing analyst.  

“Peter was the go-to guy on so many different issues,” said Richard Figueroa, director of the health and human services department at The California Endowment. “Peter was one of those rare individuals who had intimate knowledge of California-based issues as well as intimate Washington, D.C. knowledge. And for someone so young, he had quite a resume.”

The work with Edwards was a breakthrough in health care reform, Figueroa said, and it summed up Harbage’s unique way of approaching complicated problems.

“Those health care concepts at the time weren’t popular, but they ended up being very much like what we have now,” Figueroa said. “Peter was always around the big issues, and pushing the envelope.”

Mitchell Katz, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, had a detailed, slightly wonky view of Harbage’s contributions to health reform in California.

“[He] provided [us] with impactful consulting in a variety of important areas, including unit-based quality improvement and redesign of our computer system,” Katz said. “Although Peter can never be replaced we look forward to working with the Harbage team in the future.”

Hilary Haycock, Harbage’s widow, will continue to run Harbage Consulting.

“We will continue the good work that he helped move forward at DHCS with the help of Hilary Haycock and the Harbage Consulting team,” Cantwell said. “All of us owe a debt of gratitude to Peter, and we will work to continue his legacy.”