In Remembrance of My Dear Friend Peter Harbage


I am so very heartbroken that my dear friend and former colleague, Peter Harbage, recently passed away.

In my lifetime, I have never known anyone quite like Peter. He dedicated his life to helping others, particularly those in need. He had a great wit, laugh, and smile that had a certain charisma that would light up the room. Those things and his utter kindness made him a wonderful person – the kind of person that pretty much everybody who knew him liked instantly.

But for me, what was most incredible about him was that he worked passionately and tirelessly to help those in need by addressing the nearly unsolvable issues related to the world’s most complicated health care system and our crazy political system with divine intelligence, depth, breadth, and absolute genius.

I first got to know Peter as a colleague of mine in the United States Senate in 2003 where we both worked on health care policy together – he for Senator John Edwards from North Carolina and me for Senator Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico. Our bosses served on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee under the leadership of Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

I also worked with Peter in his capacity on the Edwards Campaign for President, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Assistant Secretary for Health at the California Health and Human Services Agency, and as the founder and president of Harbage Consulting.

Over the years, I have known a number of incredibly smart people but, since I have known him, if I did not understand or was uncertain about a health policy issue that I was confronting, the first person I often gravitated to call or reach out to was Peter.

Peter was brilliant, but he also had the gift of being a great colleague, as he could explain and talk you through the problems, the issues, and the possible solutions in a way that was understandable, accessible, and empowering. For those of you who know people in Washington, D.C., that is a rare trait, as the “eye-roll” is what you are most likely to receive if you ask a “stupid” question. As Peter once said in jest about that culture, “Everything you learned in high school, you can apply to Congress.”

Through his work becoming a nationally distinguished health care policy wonk, his overriding guidepost was to think about ways to help the uninsured, the sick, the poor, and children to get affordable, comprehensive health insurance coverage. His goal was to find a cost effective solution to providing health coverage to everybody in our country – plans he personally developed at both the national and state level. He had a gift, in that he could take a complicated underlying topic, such as insurance market reform or the role that health care plays in the nation’s economy, analyze it, and convey in an understandable way what needed to change to help the most vulnerable people in our society.

Peter tackled just about everything in health care policy – Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), uncompensated care, insurance market reform, insurance industry underwriting abuse, employer health coverage, state health reform, and the most complicated of all, national health reform (see here, here, here, here and here).

And I guarantee that a number of his writings on these issues will be read 10, 20, or even 30 years from now and appreciated by those who are following in his footsteps and trying to understand and think about ways to improve our nation’s health system.

Days before Christmas, I wrote Peter, asked him for his new home address, told him I wanted to come visit him and his wonderful wife Hilary in the New Year, and asked him how he was doing. He wrote back, “Doin’ good. Hope you guys are as well.”

It is a perfect, simple message for me to hold on to from him because being well is what he hoped and worked on for everyone – all the time.

Millions of people today have health coverage today due, in part, to the work of Peter over the years. That is part of his legacy. But another, more intimate one, is that for those of us who knew Peter, we are all the better for it. He was the best and we miss you Peter!