Occupational Therapy Practitioners Help AOTA Reach Hill Day Peak
Shortly after 10 am on Monday, September 19 , about 30 West Virginia University Occupational Therapy students marched from the Visitors’ Center of the U.S. Capitol across the plaza to the base of the iconic dome.
“We must look pretty important,” one student remarked about the throng of 30 future occupational therapy practitioners dressed in formal business attire on their way to talk shop with some of the country’s leaders.
The school was one of 16 participating in AOTA’s annual Capitol Hill Day, which affords members the chance to meet face to face with national legislators and their key staffers to discuss the value of occupational therapy and the issues facing the profession.
“I’m excited to see so many of you committed to advancing the interests of the profession,” AOTA’s executive director Fred Somers said in a kickoff to the festivities. “It’s essential for every occupational therapy practitioner and student to embrace advocacy as we move toward our Centennial Vision.”
More than 400 people, including 54 occupational therapy practitioners, participated in 2011’s event, the largest number ever, and they filled an auditorium inside the Capitol. In addition, 1,300 were involved remotely as part of Virtual Hill Day.
The day began with AOTA staff, including Legislative Representative Ralph Kohl, as well as AOTA President Florence Clark, briefing the participants on the value of advocacy and offering tips on how to be a successful lobbyist. Some basic strategies included delivering a tight, clear message and making sure to establish a personal connection. (Since lobbying is an ongoing effort and can be done at any level, be sure to check out AOTA’s tips online here.
Tim Nanof, AOTA’s director of Federal Affairs, said Hill Day allows congressional leaders to grasp the pervasiveness of the profession.
“This brings occupational therapy’s political presence to Washington and connects it back to the leaders’ districts,” Nanof said. “It makes a big difference in terms of what the reach of occupational therapy is, and that’s different than what [AOTA’s Federal Affairs staff] can bring on a day-to-day-basis.”
This year, participants were especially focused on encouraging legislators to support the Medicare Access to Rehabilitation Services Act, which would repeal the Medicare Part B therapy caps, allowing practitioners to provide clients with the valuable services they need. The challenge is that repealing the caps would require Congress to spend more money now, to achieve long-term savings. But most Hill Day participants were successful in persuading Congressional offices to at least consider the occupational therapy perspective.
Michelle Molinari and some of her fellow WVU occupational therapy students had a very effective meeting with one of Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) staffers, Milisa Cutlip. Not only did Cutlip, a WVU alumna, bond with the students over their Mountaineer connection, but she emphasized that Manchin is a proponent of taking care of seniors and of preserving services that help them function.
“We were able to communicate how we provide a unique service that seniors need and that they are not necessarily getting it, and that this is something for Sen. Manchin to look at,” Molinari said following her meeting. “I was surprised at how interested [Cutlip] was and how specific her questions were.”
Staci Molinar, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago interested in traumatic brain rehabilitation in the veteran population, met with Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office and felt like she was able to make an impact.
“It’s really powerful to be there in person and to tell your story. I think sharing those stories put a face to the bill and the profession,” said Molinar, who told Durbin’s staff about her brother on the autism spectrum whose life has been transformed by occupational therapy, thus allowing them to understand the profession on a more human level. The staffer even asked Molinar to submit her narrative in writing so he could include it in a presentation to Durbin.
Arameh Anvarizadeh, OTD, OTR/L, who earned her doctorate in occupational therapy from the University of Southern California and now works in pediatrics, met with key office staff, including those of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and said she planned to turn Monday’s visits into continued correspondences.
“They were responding, they were asking questions, they appeared interested, they were taking notes, they were willing to be open, and they were willing for us to follow up with them. So it was a great back and forth conversation,” Anvarizadeh said.
But it needs to be a long-term and broader conversation that might include ensuring legislators don’t confuse occupational therapy with other services such as physical therapy, said Lydia BonGiorni, a 2nd-year master’s student at Towson University.
“There needs to be a presence so they know what OT is and understand that it really is part of the health care solution. In this push for prevention and wellness I can’t really think of any other rehab professional that is capable of doing what OTs do.” BonGiorni said she plans to maintain contact with her representatives, but if this, is any indication, Hill Day has already made its mark.
After participants finished their meetings, they were invited to attend a reception sponsored by HRC ManorCare and hosted by the District of Columbia Occupational Therapy Association, Howard University Department of Occupational Therapy, and the AOTA District of Columbia RA Representative. The reception encouraged reflection on Hill Day as well as networking, especially with Florence Clark.
Clark congratulated all attendees and said the volume of students committed to advocating for the profession proves the future is bright.
“It’s important to let Congress know that each one of us is invested in our profession and to let them know that we are making our country stronger by allowing our clients to live life to its fullest,” she said.
Participating schools included Chatham University, Community College of Baltimore County, Durham College, D’Youville College, Kent State at East Liverpool, Nova Southeastern University, Sacred Heart University, Seton Hall University, Temple University, Thomas Jefferson University, Towson University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of the Sciences Philadelphia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Washington University in St. Louis, and West Virginia University.
Following Lyndsay Neal’s meeting with West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, II’s legislative assistant, about 2 hours after the WVU students marched toward the Capitol dome, Neal reflected on the importance of her trip to Washington and her participation in Hill Day.
“You don’t realize that occupational therapy is all over and that we have such a large impact. I don’t think I realized how important our voices are and that we can get a point across,” Neal said. “I realized that we are all part of something huge.”
Andrew Waite is the associate editor of OT Practice. He can be reached at email@example.com.