Consumers should have a voice in their health care and — thanks to Perry Bryant — residents of West Virginia have the opportunity to have a seat at the table.
Perry, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, is set to retire at the end of the year. But as a result of his and the organization’s efforts, West Virginians have been able to learn more about the Affordable Care Act and take part in several initiatives to improve their health. Bryant worked for the West Virginia Education Association for about 20 years, representing school service personnel and teachers for the Public Employees Insurance Agency. He said he saw firsthand how union organizations were well represented in the health care discussion, but the same couldn’t be said for the average consumer.
“It was apparent to me everybody was represented except for consumers,” he said. “There was nobody working full time for health care issues for consumers. Union organizations paid attention to health care issues, but had a whole lot of other things they needed to do. I thought it was important to have one more organization that could represent the interest and work exclusively to represent the interests of consumers on health care issues.”
Bryant teamed with others, including former state Sen. Dr. Dan Foster, health care administrator Renate Poore and Sam Hickman, who works with social workers, to form West Virginians for Affordable Health Care. Bryant said the group started out with the goal of getting the Legislature to pass a style of health care similar to what is seen in Vermont. Although Massachusetts is generally seen as the leader for state-sponsored health care, Vermont’s plan included aspects the group thought were important to West Virginia.
“We went to the Legislature and convinced them to set up a select committee on health care reform,” Bryant said. “We were successful in getting them to hire Ken Thorpe, a health care economist who was the architect of the Vermont legislation. Most people think of Massachusetts as the leading edge of health care reform at a state level. Really, Vermont was a far more important health care reform piece than Massachusetts was. Both expanded health insurance, but Vermont really focused on trying to deal with chronic illness. In West Virginia, you absolutely have to deal with chronic illness to make health care affordable. That’s where we spend most of our money.”
Bryant said Thorpe’s estimates show West Virginia spends 75 percent of health care dollars on chronic diseases, including diabetes and congestive heart failure. One thing Bryant would like to see his successor accomplish is the creation of a multi-payer chronic disease management program. Insurance companies would work together with dietitians, nurse practitioners and the like to address health care issues before they become a bigger problem. Patients would be connected with specialists who understand their unique issues and create a support system of sorts for the patient.
“That is badly needed so we can change the culture in West Virginia,” Bryant said. “You can see sprouts of that occurring, but you don’t see systemic changes in delivery of health care that I think are really important.”
The group also works to educate newly insured patients about the health care system. Because of the Affordable Care Act, many more West Virginians have access to health insurance, either through the market exchange or expanded Medicaid. Either way, Bryant said the group has partnered with the Department of Health and Human Resources and Office of Insurance Commissioner for a Coverage to Care initiative that aims to show new patients how to navigate what can be a complex and cumbersome system.
“We’re working to fund focus groups, what are the barriers to health care now that people have an insurance card whether through the marketplace, private products or Medicaid coverage? What are the barriers to coverage? Are they having difficulty finding physicians? Transportation? Do they understand preventive measures are free with no copay or deductible? What preventative measures are available to them?”
Since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010 — leaving the group’s efforts for a state-sponsored health care system null and void — West Virginians for Affordable Health Care has worked to educate consumers about the complex and changing law. They’ve sponsored several training sessions across the state to help health care navigators better assist the newly insured.
“We’ve done an enormous amount of public education around the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “We had town meetings in 2010 and 2011 all across the state to educate people about what was actually in the Affordable Care Act. In 2012, we had trainer sessions across the state to train several hundred people in the details of the Affordable Care Act. Going into the enrollment last year, we had an enrollment summit in Flatwoods in may of 2013 that attracted 250 people. We went through the nuts and bolts of enrollment. There were holes in our knowledge because not everyone knew all the details.”
To say that Bryant has been busy is an understatement. In addition to public education, part of his job includes fundraising, creating programs and running the day-to-day operations. In retirement, he’s looking forward to gardening, hiking and traveling and hopes to leave the organization to someone younger “with more energy.”
“In a couple of weeks I’ll be 68. It does take an enormous amount of energy and effort to keep this organization up and running and keep up with the success we’ve had,” he said. “To be honest I don’t have that level of energy anymore. I’m getting old and slowing down. It’s time for someone younger with more energy and enthusiasm.”
Contact writer Whitney Burdette at 304-348-7939 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/wburdette_DM.