AOTA Hosts Largest Ever Hill Day
By Andrew Waite
As Tim Nanof, AOTA’s director of Federal Affairs, addressed more than 500 clinicians, students, and educators inside the Congressional Auditorium in Washington, DC, on September 24, Ralph Kohl, AOTA’s legislative representative, dragged folding chairs into the back of the room. The balcony was already filled, and people were peeking into the spacious hall from the wings. Kohl even had to ask the AOTPAC board members to move their front row seats to make room for more Capitol Hill Day 2012 attendees.
With 514 registered attendees, 2012 was the largest-ever Hill Day in AOTA history. It trumped last year’s record number of 400-plus attendees. In addition, AOTA members participating in Virtual Hill Day sent more than 2,000 messages in support of their colleagues on the Hill.
“Hill Day is an opportunity AOTA has created for occupational therapy professionals to bring their advocacy and concerns straight to their elected officials and educate them on the issues critical to occupational therapy and the people we serve,” Nanof said.
The group of occupational therapy clinicians, educators, and students advocated to:
- Urge Congressional support to pass the Medicare Access to Rehabilitation Services Act (S. 829/H.R. 1546), which seeks to repeal therapy caps implemented by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The current act limits Medicare coverage of outpatient occupational therapy to $1,880 and places a separate combined limit on physical and speech therapy of $1,880.
- Encourage the inclusion of occupational therapy in the Federal Definition of “Behavioral and Mental Health Professional” in the National Health Services Corps through promotion of H.R. 3762.
- Urge Congressional support of the Medicare Home Health Flexibility Act (H.R. 2468) to give occupational therapy equal footing among other services provided by home health agencies to allow Medicare beneficiaries to receive the most appropriate skilled service to meet their needs.
Denise Finch, OTD, OTR/L, CHT, CCM, and Alexa Trolley-Hanson, MS, OTR/L, were two of the 2012 participants who helped increase participation as this was their first year attending. They have recently stepped up as leaders in the New Hampshire Occupational Therapy Association and are hoping to make advocacy a more regular part of the profession.
“This was my opportunity to get involved and understand the issues and bring the information back to our membership in New Hampshire so that more people can become active participants in advocacy,” Finch said.
The day’s agenda began with a welcome address by AOTA Executive Director Fred Somers, a talk by AOTA president-elect Ginny Stoffel, PhD, OT, BCMH, FAOTA, on how to define occupational therapy in terms that will resonate with Capitol Hill staff members; a word about the importance of advocacy by AOTPAC Board Chair Gail Fisher, MPA, OTR/L, and a briefing by Nanof on effective advocacy strategies and specific issues attendees should highlight in their meetings with staffers.
Attendees were then roused in an address by Christina Metzler, AOTA’s chief public affairs officer, urging them to say “No, no, no” to therapy caps and “yes, yes, yes” to occupational therapy services that help people live life to its fullest. Following the morning session, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Jersey attendees heard from a panel of Senate staff members while others dispersed for their individual meetings.
The face-to-face meetings with staff from Congressional offices can be nerve racking, even for experienced practitioners like Finch and Trolley-Hanson. Finch has owned her own practice for 25 years and Trolley-Hanson has been working in pediatrics nearly 10 years.
“Both of us felt some anxiety. How can you not?” Trolley-Hanson said. “Despite all of the preparation that AOTA provided, which was really great, that unexpectedness is definitely a little anxiety producing.”
“I wasn’t sure I had enough experience or knowledge to do this,” Finch added.
But if Finch and Trolley-Hanson were nervous, they disguised it well. And with the legislators recessing early this year, their staff had much more time available to meet with Hill Day attendees and review the materials they shared. Finch and Trolley-Hanson met first with Daniel Auger, a legislative assistant in Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s office, and they were especially pleased to learn that Ayotte has expressed support of extending the therapy cap exceptions process. Next they met with Kate Ramsey, a staff assistant in Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s office, who acknowledged it seems ridiculous that under Medicare occupational therapists currently cannot open and conduct initial and comprehensive home health assessments when occupational therapy is listed on the physician’s order along with a qualifying service. Austen Jensen, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Frank Guinta, promised to give a thorough review of the information packet Finch and Trolley-Hanson left behind, and Helen Dwight, senior legislative assistant in Rep. Charles Bass’s office, agreed to an unscheduled meeting and said she hoped to continue a dialogue about adding occupational therapy to the federal definition of behavior and mental health professionals.
Several hundred such meetings were taking place on Capitol Hill all day. As always, many Capitol Hill Day attendees were students.
“Our profession has an identity but not everyone knows what it is exactly,” said Sarah Dellinger, a second year master of OT student at the University of Pittsburgh. “I decided to come today because I wanted to advocate for occupational therapy so patients can get the services they need to become more independent.”
By the end of the day, triumph replaced anxiety for Finch and Trolley-Hanson.
“I feel like we have made a difference, and that is inspiring, and motivating, and a bit addicting,” Finch said.
Trolley-Hanson said she learned that anyone can be an advocate for the profession.
“There is not something inherently special about [Finch] or I,” Trolley-Hanson said. “We came into it just like everybody else. And now that we’ve done it I feel like we could do it again. But anybody could.”
Find out more on how to get involved with AOTA advocacy.
Andrew Waite is the associate editor of OT Practice. He can be reached at email@example.com. Katie Riley, AOTA’s Media Relations manager, contributed to this article.