By Andrew Waite
On the day before AOTA Capitol Hill Day, AOTA President Virginia Stoffel, PhD, OT, BCMH, FAOTA, and a few of the Representative Assembly members rode in a pedicab in Washington, D.C. As the cabbie pedaled his customers around the famous monuments, he asked what brought them to the nation’s capital. Stoffel and co. were all too happy to tell him.
AOTA President Ginny Stoffel addresses Hill Day attendees at briefing.
“If you are in need of a ride, I know at least one pedicab driver who knows all about occupational therapy,” Stoffel told more than 750 occupational therapy practitioners, students, and educators during the morning briefing of AOTA’s 2013 Capitol Hill Day, which fortuitously came one day before the government shutdown. At 752 participants, including representatives from 34 states and Washington, DC, 29 schools, 28 occupational therapists, an occupational therapy assistant, 43 faculty members, 619 occupational therapy students, and 61 occupational therapy assistant students, 2013 once again set the record for AOTA Hill Day attendance.
Last year, 514 people attended, meaning this year’s participation jumped by nearly 50%. In addition to the in-person participation, 1,315 letters were sent virtually, 360 tweets used the OTHillDay hashtag, 165 photos were uploaded to Instagram with the OTHillDay hashtag, and AOTA’s Facebook posts about Hill Day reached nearly 56,000 people.
Just as the myriad ways people participated in Hill Day shows, Stoffel’s message was that advocacy can be conversational and relaxed and happen everywhere from a representative’s office to online to the back seat of a pedicab.
Alyssa Concha, a second year occupational therapy student at the University of Southern California, said she has recently learned about the impact politics can have on the profession, especially in her role as a student delegate for the Occupational Therapy Association of California. As part of the learning process, she interviewed a lobbyist in California and asked her to explain her job.
“She said, ‘well, I lobby. I have meetings with representatives, and I lobby,’” Concha said. “But what does that mean? She kept saying that she lobbies, so finally I just embraced it and figured that the only way I am going to learn to do this is if I do it myself.”
AOTPAC Chair Gail Fisher met with Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
So that’s exactly what Concha was doing at Hill Day, where she met with staff members of Congressional offices to explain occupational therapy, as well as discuss issues and pieces of legislation that affect the profession.
Hill Day participants highlighted the importance of repealing the Medicare Part B Outpatient Therapy Cap, which places arbitrary limits on access to medically necessary rehabilitation services for all Medicare patients seeking outpatient services; encouraged legislators to support the Occupational Therapy Mental Health Act, which would add occupational therapists to the federal definition of “Behavior and Mental Health Professionals” under the National Health Services Corps; urged legislators to end dramatic cuts to education and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funding that came as a result of sequestration; and sought support for rehabilitation research at the National Institutes of Health.
But those policy points alone do not lead to effective visits.
Yvonne Randall, EdD, OTR/L, FAOTA, an AOTPAC board member who has lobbied on the Hill 8 times, demonstrated what successful meetings look like. She met with Katherine Cassling, legislative assistant in Nevada Rep. Dina Titus’s office; Anna Lake, legislative counsel in Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei’s office; and James Langenderfer, legislative director in Nevada Rep. Joe Heck’s office and was able to make a personal connection each time. Because Randall lives in Titus’s district, she mentioned town halls the Congresswoman holds in the district and a local mental health hospital that will be employing its first occupational therapist. Heck was a professor at Touro University, where Randall is the director of the School of Occupational Therapy, so she made sure Langenderfer understood the local link. Langenderfer promised to mention Randall’s visit during his senior staff meeting with Heck later in the week.
The personal touches are what make visits memorable for the staff members and ultimately lead to action, said John McManus, president of The McManus Group, who briefed Hill Day attendees about the current political landscape as the 2013 AOTA Hill Day guest speaker.
“Talk about your patients, their constituents, and how you are able to help them get better,” McManus advised Hill Day participants. “Your best argument is to say that these patients won’t get the care they need if the caps go into effect or if budget cuts are made.”
Amanda Griffith, a second year occupational therapy student at the University of Pittsburgh, was admittedly nervous before her meetings with Pennsylvania Congressional staff. But standing outside the Cannon House Office Building at the end of the day she was grinning like a student on the last day of school.
“The meetings went well because we really made it personal. A lot of us mentioned personal experiences about occupational therapy, which were very well received,” she said.
| OT practitioners and students meet with Senate staff.
Shannon Holzheimer, a second year student at Cleveland State University, discussed with staff members why she wanted to become an occupational therapist.
“When my nephew was 2, he had problems with fine motor as well as tactile defensiveness. So that’s when I was first introduced to occupational therapy and the tremendous help that it has made in his life,” Holzheimer said. “Now, he is a fully functioning kid.”
AOTA employs two full-time lobbyists, Heather Parsons, director of Legislative Advocacy, and Tim Casey, director of Federal Affairs, to maintain occupational therapy’s presence on Capitol Hill year round.
“Our job is to meet and work with members of Congress to gain support for our issues. But sometimes, we aren’t enough. Many elected officials want to know first-hand that an issue is important to their constituents. These visits on Hill Day open new doors for Tim [Casey] and I as new offices understand the importance of occupational therapy.”
After a day on the Hill, Concha had a more complete understanding about what it means to lobby for occupational therapy.
“Lobbying is really making the link between how legislation impacts someone’s life and the experiences and services that they have access to. If that means going online and e-mailing your senator or your representative about important issues, if it means actually making an appointment and going to their office, or even if it is just in a pedicab like Dr. Stoffel said today, explain what OT is to somebody,” Concha says. “All that to me is lobbying.”
Andrew Waite is the associate editor of OT Practice. He can be reached at email@example.com.