Delegates at a Midland conference quizzed Health Minister Rosie Winterton over the Government's plans to " silence" patient forums yesterday.
If new legislation is passed later this year, the Birmingham-based Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health ( CPPIH) would be abolished by August 2006.
Forum members fear this will make their groups little more than "a talking shop" and that group chairs appointed centrally by the NHS would dilute their influence.
Addressing delegates at the organisation's inaugural conference at the International Convention Centre, in Birmingham, Ms Winterton said the CPPIH had done a " tremendous job".
She said: "Since last year's announcement about the commission's future we've begun looking at how we can strengthen our commitment to the patient forums.
"The commission had been doing a tremendous job but we now need a much more focused approach at supporting the forums on the ground.
"I think this is a very exciting time for forums, but I also know there's been uncertainty and an element of resentment.
"If we can get this right not only will patient forums develop within the new system but the focus will be on local decision-making and that cannot happen without their involvement."
As the Minister ended her speech, a panel question-andanswer session was to follow but the audience of more than 500 delegates only wanted answers from one person.
The chief concerns focused on the commission's future and why patient forums were being scrapped in favour of 'mega forums' that would serve primary care trusts rather than individual hospitals.
Delegates also raised fears that specialist services would be sidelined under these proposals.
But Ms Winterton denied this meant the Department of Health wanted to exercise "more control" over patient forums and their agendas.
"This is not about control and I think we can devise a way of making sure forum members have a lot of influence over how chairpeople are appointed," she said.
"There is nothing to stop forums having specialist members who can liaise with different departments and trusts, for example within mental health.
"This is not about sidelining mental health or any other specialist service, in fact by having PCT forums I hope we can make them mainstream."
After the Minister agreed "in principle" that she would look into CPPIH's proposals for a National Association of Patient Forums, she asked the audience how they would like to be consulted.
Elaine Russell, of Heart of Birmingham PCT patient forum, told Ms Winterton that more notice and information were needed.
She said: "If you're going to consult, give us the parameters for discussion, not the answers you want to hear.
"You have to give us time to talk to people, two weeks' notice is not enough. Within our area 70 per cent of the community don't have English as their first language.
"Consultation is supposed to be about asking people what they think, not telling people what to think."