Obit: Peter Harbage, health care reform advocate

Millions of Californians receive quality health care thanks to the Affordable Care Act and Medi-Cal. And though most would probably thank President Obama or the Governor for that, Peter Harbage, who passed away Tuesday at age 43 after a courageous fight with cancer, had a lot to do with it too.

“Peter is the unsung architect of health care reform in the United States,” says Anthony Wright, Executive Director of Health Access, a health care consumer advocacy group. “For two decades, Peter has been on the front lines of the work to improve our health system, working as a administrator, a consultant, a policy guru, an evangelist, a thinker, and a provider of social lubricant.”

Peter started Harbage Consulting in 2005. With his wife, Hilary Haycock, the company, with 27 employees across California as well as in New York City and Washington, D.C., has quickly become a national leader in health care policy implementation.

From 2003 to 2008, Peter served as the senior health policy adviser to presidential candidate and former Senator John Edwards.

Prior to building his firm, Peter spent nearly two decades in the trenches building health care policies and systems. He led the California team that built the nation’s first program that focuses on improving the experience of care, improving the health of low-income populations, and reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

He also served as the Assistant Secretary for Health at the California Health and Human Services Agency under Governor Gray Davis, and as a Special Assistant to the Administrator of the federal Health Care Financing Administration under the Clinton Administration. He started his career as a Medicaid budget analyst at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Peter’s passion for health care reform also extended to the political arena. From 2003 to 2008, Peter served as the senior health policy adviser to presidential candidate and former Senator John Edwards. Although Edwards never became President, Peter was responsible for designing the health care policy that sparked the North Carolina Senator’s then rivals, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, to develop similar plans.
In 2007, he worked with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s health care reform team in California, and more recently, he was a Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

“Peter Harbage was a tremendous human being – extremely smart, very funny, and with a generous spirit,” notes Mari Cantwell, Chief Deputy of Health Care Programs at the California Department of Health and Human Services. “Peter and his team at Harbage Consulting guide us with his expertise, intelligence, and passion. His wife Hilary has been a stalwart champion of the program and shares Peter’s passion and commitment to the same mission. While his passing leaves a hole here at DHCS where we have considered him a part of our team, but we are fortunate to still have the Hilary and the rest of Harbage Consulting team continuing on Peter’s legacy of expertise, hard work and passion for our mission.”

Hilary, who will continue to lead the company, brought more than a decade of experience in health care communications and policy to the firm. Before joining the company, she served as the Issues Campaign Director for the SEIU California State Council. In that capacity she developed and implemented public affairs campaigns on health policy issues, particularly around implementation of the Affordable Care Act in California. Hilary worked on the Affordable Care Act at the federal level in several capacities. As a Presidential Management Fellow, Hilary worked on communications around the Affordable Care Act at the White House Domestic Policy Council, for the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and for the Director of Communications for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Hilary has published extensively on health care safety net issues in California and other health reform topics for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Small Business Majority, Center for American Progress Action Fund, AARP, California HealthCare Foundation and others.

Hilary says he will not only be remembered for his work in health care, but also for his wry sense of humor and generous heart. His official bio on the company’s website noted that as an avid runner “Peter continues to regret that his high school cross-county coach (to whom Peter was a constant embarrassment) doesn’t know Peter completed the 2011 Napa Valley Marathon in 3:37. It turns out that working on health reform was the perfect marathon training regimen for the heart and soul.”

“After a health policy conference in Sacramento or D.C., he was always eager to host the after-party–enough so there is a drink named after him at The Grange restaurant,” notes Wright. “I have on my bulletin board an autographed list of specialty drinks from at least one such Harbage-sponsored occasion, with names like the “public option” and other wonky terms. That was his way, to be friendly and open and try to connect people socially as well as professionally, all in an easy going style. His wedding at a Napa winery had enough health policy muckety-mucks in attendance that I joked with him if I should have brought handouts.”

The Peter Harbage Fellowship will be created in his honor to invest in future leaders for California’s health care safety net. Donations and inquires can be sent to Ingrid Aguirre Happoldt at

Ed’s Note: Steven Maviglio, a veteran political consultant and adviser to state Democratic leaders, is based in Sacramento.

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