Advocacy: How to Conquer the Hill

Each year, the American Occupational Therapy Association holds a Capitol Hill Day in DC to help occupational therapists meet with their congressional leaders to advocate for occupational therapy and various issues in health care.  This year it was held on Monday, September 30th, and two of Magee’s occupational therapists, Sheila Wilson and Paula Bonsall, made the journey to the hill.

Advocacy is an important and critical part of health care, both for clinicians and people living with disabilities or other conditions, but can be intimidating for many.  Though it takes some prep and planning, these OTs found it to be immensely valuable and definitely eye-opening.  Here they share their tips for a successful visit along with some lessons learned.

Plan well ahead.  For us, planning started several weeks prior to the visit.  To ensure the undivided attention of legislators with whom we would have the most impact, we sent countless emails back and forth to set up the most important appointments.  Figure out the most valuable places your time should be spent prior to your visit, and prioritize in case you are not able to schedule with all of them.  We caught an early Amtrak train heading south to the Capitol and filled our day with appointments with legislative aides for Senators Menendez (NJ), Casey (PA) and Toomey (PA); and Congressman Andrew (NJ).

Prepare your key points.  Have a healthy list of hot topics you would like to address, but be sure to identify 1-3 key points you absolutely want to get across in case time is limited.  Of interest to us was legislation relating to access to complex rehab technology, the impact of competitive bidding for durable medical equipment on patients in rehab, medical device tax, and issues relating to reimbursement for care such as the sustainable growth rate and caps on payment for therapy services. For you, it will likely be completely different depending on what your advocating for – just make sure you can sum it up in the time it takes to ride an elevator.

Know your stuff.  We found out quickly that it pays to do your research and to have clear opinions to put forth.  We were drilled with questions about why and how certain legislation could impact us.  It was definitely helpful to have notes on hand as there was a particular interest in statistics (such as how many people are having difficulty getting equipment) and the specific financial implications tied to various issues for individuals as well as organizations.

Tell stories.  Statistics are great, but real life stories about how people have been affected by particular legislation or regulations are most powerful.  Come to the Hill with stories and be able to paint a picture of the impact you have seen or experienced relating to the issues being discussed.  Bring stories of success and stories of unfortunate circumstances.  Both will help highlight what is needed and what you hope to make better.

We believe our day was effective despite the next day threat of a government shutdown. We made personal contacts with legislators who could help shape the future of rehabilitation, met some future colleagues, and learned that we were not alone in our thinking.

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All four of the representatives we met with expressed support for our mission as therapists and as a rehabilitation hospital, even though they may all have different ideas on how to show their support.  Some take-a-ways for us were to be sure to understand the issues thoroughly, know how your ideas on will make a difference in outcomes and quality of life, and know the financial impact of your ideas.  Meeting and speaking with your legislators is critical because they will only act if they hear from you.  At every meeting, we were greeted with questions posed to understand, not to challenge, as well as an interest in hearing actual client stories to put a face to an issue.

One more lesson when lobbying.…wear comfortable shoes or you’ll get a big blister!

Submitted by Sheila Wilson, MA, OTR/L, ATP,  and Paula Bonsall, MS, OTR/L, ATP

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