"We can let the bureaucrats in Washington devise ways to balance [health care's] competing needs. Or we can invest our time, energy, experience and intellect to work both within the AHA, and with our partners in care, to advance realistic, sustainable and accountable solutions that put patients first," American Hospital Association Chair Teri Fontenot told a packed crowd at the kickoff to the association's annual meeting.

Speaking after her official investiture yesterday as 2012 chair of the AHA board, Fontenot challenged hospital leaders to become more involved in shaping the transformation of health care that is already well under way.

It was a theme heard repeatedly during the first day of the AHA's Annual Membership Meeting here in the District of Columbia. At session after session, speakers emphasized the crucial need for hospital leaders to help politicians and policymakers understand how proposed legislation and regulations will impact the care providers are able to deliver in their communities.

There was no "woe is me" in the message. Almost everyone I heard throughout the afternoon, from congressional staff who spoke at a briefing on rural health to panelists debating the changing role of hospital boards, to CEOs I ran into in hallways and elevators on our way to other sessions here at the Washington Hilton, there was widespread acknowledgement that no matter how the Supreme Court rules on the Affordable Care Act or how this fall's national elections turn out, health care is in the midst of profound, unstoppable change. And the consensus was that change is necessary.

The question, Fontenot and others said, is how the changes can be harnessed in such a way that doesn't hamstring providers and do more harm than good for the patients they serve. The focus, she said, must always be on the people hospitals serve.

"An oncologist friend recently quoted his medical school mentor," Fontenot told hundreds of hospital representatives gathered in the Hilton auditorium. "He said, 'If it's good for the patient, it's good. If it's good for the doctor, the hospital or the family, it may be good. But if it's good for the patient, it's good.'

"I maintain that no one knows more about how to deliver health care than the people who do it — and that's you and me. Nobody understands patient needs more than the people who serve them everyday." That's why it's critical for health leaders to work together in their communities, in their state hospital associations and in the AHA, so they — and not politicians and bureaucrats — drive health care forward.

"At this critical juncture in health care, our unified voice is more important than ever. And let me be clear: If we speak out together, with frequency and determination, we will be heard," Fontenot said. "We can never forget that we are privileged people ... people who leave work each day rewarded by the knowledge that we improved and saved lives. With that privilege comes the obligation to do whatever we can to save even more.