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Nov 11, 1999
by Louinn Lota
State Office to Help California Patients Maneuver Through Complicated SystemHealth care experts said the state's new patient rights office should handle complaints about HMOs, put out an annual HMO report card and fight for California residents' health care rights.
Assemblyman Martin Gallegos, D-Baldwin Park, was co-author of Assembly Bill 78, which created the new Office of Patient Advocate. OPA will open July 1, 2000, and most at Wednesday's public hearing downtown expected it to be the central hub to collect complaints about HMOs.
"Not only should the Office of Patient Advocate and the Department of Managed Care be in physically separate offices, they should have separate ideologies as well," said Andrew Pontious, with The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica (www.consumerwatchdog.org).
"OPA should exist to promote good advocacy for those California patients stonewalled care by their HMOs," Pontious said. "They should be aggressive in nature, be able to handle crisis situations. They should have endurance and be recruited from universities for their political or consumer advocacy skills, like a Ralph Nader. Health care is in a bad state and public opinion knows this."
"Patients are expected to navigate through this complicated maze we call managed care. We need to hear from everybody," Gallegos said. "And the expanded rights and health care reforms passed by the Legislature will not carry any weight if the state doesn't provide assistance."
He added the structure of OPA was still in the early planning stages and he would hold at least two more hearings in Sacramento and San Diego.
Although billed as a public hearing, only two people from outside the health care industry testified, including Harvey S. Frey, a doctor-turned-lawyer from Health Administration Responsibility Project Inc. (www.harp.org). Most of Wednesday's testimony came from members of consumer rights groups.
Assemblyman Edward Vincent, the mayor of Inglewood for 15 years, expressed frustration as expert after expert spoke about how difficult it was for someone who is ill to get through paperwork to argue for their own good care.
"That a sick person has to fight for their health care is sick," Vincent, D-Inglewood, said. "If we keep doing what we've been doing, we're going to get the same thing we've always gotten, and that's unacceptable."
Barbara Frankel, supervising attorney for Health Consumer Center, agreed.
Her agency (1-800-896-3203 in Los Angeles) runs six centers statewide serving low-income and a majority of Hispanic residents. She emphasized the Office of Patience Advocate must have bilingual counselors and easy-to-understand brochures available in several languages. She said OPA must advertise about their services in California's multicultural communities.
"People won't trust health care information that comes from strangers," Frankel said. "We get 2,000 calls a month from patients who are very upset, who talk quickly and feel most comfortable speaking in their native language."
Frankel also reminded those at the hearing that many indigent patients cannot read and cannot log onto the Internet.
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