AOTA at the National Conventions: Keeping OT in the Spotlight
By Stephanie Yamkovenko
As the nation continues to prepare for the upcoming presidential elections next month, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and the American Occupational Therapy Political Action Committee (AOTPAC) are working to ensure that occupational therapy is a part of the health care debate. Part of that effort was to send AOTA staff and members to the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention.
AOTPAC was instrumental in occupational therapy having a presence at these important political events and invited AOTA members to participate as well.
AOTA’s director of Federal Affairs, Tim Nanof, attended the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, along with AOTA members Michael Berthelette, MSM, OTR/L, and Deborah Murphy-Fischer, MBA, OTR/L, IMT. AOTA’s legislative representative, Ralph Kohl, attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, with AOTA member Brenda Kennell, BS, MA, OTR/L.
Staff and members attended a variety of events at the conventions, including sessions on health care reform, events hosted by other health industry groups, and panel discussions.
Nanof and Kohl spoke with members of Congress about occupational therapy at both conventions. Nanof met with several senators and representatives during the Republican Convention including Senator Kyl (R-AZ), who is a member of the Senate Finance Committee; Representative Michael Burgess (R-TX); Senator John McCain (R-AZ); Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who is a ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee; as well as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“I was able to raise the problem of the therapy cap as an example of the government stepping between a patient and their health care provider during the health reform panel that included Rep. Burgess and Mitt Romney’s lead advisor on health care Matthew Hoffman,” says Nanof.
Kohl also was able to talk to democratic legislators about the profession. “At the Democratic Convention, I had the opportunity to discuss occupational therapy at length with several senators, including Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jean Shaheen (D-NH), and others,” says Kohl.
Kennell was volunteering at the Democratic National Convention but when a few of her volunteer shifts were cancelled during the week, she gladly accepted AOTA’s offer to attend the Convention. In addition to attending an event on health care reform, Kennell also attended a disability policy discussion event sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.
“We were a small group, which was great, as I got to be an active participant in the discussion,” says Kennell. “The spirited discussion covered assistive technology and appropriate education of people with disabilities. We talked a lot about how workplaces can be modified to accommodate workers with disabilities, which led to the value of occupational therapy.”
AOTPAC sends AOTA staff and members to the national conventions because it allows them to interact with policy makers outside of the traditional setting of Washington, D.C. (This is another example of AOTPAC contributions hard at work. Learn more about making AOTPAC contributions here).
“AOTA attends the National Conventions to have a hands-on presence in national politics,” says Nanof. “Participating in the conventions elevates the profile of the Association and the profession.”
Nanof had a rockier experience at the Republican National Convention in 2008 in Minneapolis when the bus he was riding in was attacked by protesters throwing softball-sized rocks, cracking the windshield. Nanof reports that this year’s convention had extremely tight security and fewer protesters who were all peaceful. “Overall the event was well organized,” says Nanof. “There was a nice range of policy and social events that allowed for networking.”
The Democratic Convention was Kohl’s first convention. “It was a fantastic event where I had a great opportunity to speak directly with senators and members of the House about key issues relating to occupational therapy,” says Kohl. “At just one event I spoke with several members of the Senate regarding OT, therapy caps, OT workforce issues, and the Medicare Home Health Flexibility Act.”
Kennell says the experience was invaluable and helped her understand that occupational therapy practitioners need to understand how policy can affect practice. “The convention was beyond my imagination,” says Kennell. “The pride I felt standing in that arena saying the pledge of allegiance with [former] Representative Gabrielle Giffords—I was so moved and energized.”
Occupational therapy was represented at both national conventions, and politicians from both parties were able to hear about the issues most important to the profession and its clients.
“The political work at the Conventions is very similar to the political work supported by AOTPAC that we do in Washington with Congress throughout the year,” says Nanof. “Convention week is a compressed, over-filled schedule with hundreds of valuable networking opportunities. The participation of the delegates themselves brings a feeling of local politics from all across the country and promotes a grassroots feeling among the beltway insiders.”
Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s staff writer.