Capitol Hill - Here I Come!
By Susan Pullman, Master of Science in Occupational Therapy, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Practice Department Intern
To continue the tradition of American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) student interns participating in grass roots advocacy for occupational therapy, I took the opportunity to visit Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February 11, 2004. This visit to Capitol Hill was part of my 8-week fieldwork experience at AOTA working in the Practice department.
What an exciting and inspiring visit to our nation's capital! I was able to meet with the New Jersey representative from my home district, Congressman Robert Andrews (D-NJ). Upon arriving, I got to experience the mad rush through the Capitol as members sprinted through hallways, hustled up and down stairs, and piled into elevators to get their last votes in before the day's deadline. After Congressman Andrews had the chance to vote on the last two issues of the day, I sat down with him and his legislative assistant, Carlos Fenwick, along with AOTA lobbyist Dan Jones, in the cozy atmosphere of the Rayburn room.
First and foremost I thanked the congressman for his support of occupational therapy. He has cosponsored many bills that benefit occupational therapy as a profession, including introducing the Medicare Occupational Therapy Coverage Eligibility Act of 2003 (H.R. 3090). This bill would make occupational therapy a qualifying service for Medicare home health services for non-nursing patients. Occupational therapists would be able to open cases in home health without nursing, physical therapy, or speech therapy being required services first.
When I asked what made him take action on this particular issue, the congressman told me that he received a call about a year ago from Judith Richter, an occupational therapist in our home area, who had brought this issue to his attention. She had explained what effect this current regulation has on her private practice and offered suggestions for Congressman Andrews to take action. I was very impressed with Congressman Andrews's familiarity with this constituent and her private practice. He really took the time to listen to her and better yet, followed through on the issue.
It was very important to me to make sure Congressman Andrews and Carlos had a good understanding of occupational therapy; what we do, what areas occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants practice in, and what makes us different from other therapy services. It is essential that government officials understand our profession so they understand the impact that health care policy and reform can have on consumers of occupational therapy services.
The next point brought to the table was the hot topic of the Medicare Access to Rehabilitation Services Act of 2003 (H.R. 1125 or S. 569), currently in moratorium until 2005.
When asked about his views on the Medicare Cap, Congressman Andrews said that many people could suffer from the effects of this cap, by being cut from services due to lack of funds when they may still need therapies such as occupational therapy.
Due to budgetary needs, the congressman believes that it will be tough to accomplish a repeal but looks forward to working with his colleagues to address the need for it to be changed.
We made him aware that AOTA, along with other organizations like the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), are working together for new solutions to this problem, and to look for them in the future.
The last agenda item was Direct Access. Dan Jones informed the congressman that there has been legislation introduced (H.R. 792/S. 493) that would amend the Social Security Act to authorize physical therapists to evaluate and treat Medicare beneficiaries without a requirement for a physician referral. We want to make sure that all skilled therapies remain equal and that occupational therapy continues to be treated in the same way as physical therapy under the Medicare program.
The meeting was a great experience, and it made me realize how important it is for occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants to make sure we have a voice in our government. Legislation affects us in all areas of practice, and I do not want occupational therapy to be left behind in the dust.
I found out our government representatives are interested in what we, as constituents, have to say because we are the people who vote in their district and not only elect them to office, but allow them to stay there. Do not be afraid to talk to your legislators. They are regular people like you and me. They need to hear from you (as constituents) since you become one of the important people at election time!
Tips for visiting: Be prepared with what you want to discuss; be courteous and thank them for their time, which is so valuable. Most importantly…wear sensible shoes! You will do a lot of walking in and around the Capitol and you will thank me for this tip! I was not so lucky, only to realize this in retrospect.
Hope this sparks an interest with some of you, but my desire is that all of you if you realize the value of legislative participation if you want our profession to be valued by others as much as you value it.
My trip to the Hill was just one part of the many extraordinary experiences I have had during my short time as an AOTA intern. Being a student intern working in the Practice department has allowed me to grow both personally and professionally.
I hope to take with me throughout my career the knowledge I have gained and the appreciation and true understanding of all that the American Occupational Therapy Association contributes to my profession.