Lobbying on Capitol Hill
Kelly Potter, graduate student,
Ithaca College, Ithaca New York
A fieldwork at the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) affords many opportunities to gain valuable skills and knowledge to help in one's professional career. One of the most beneficial opportunities is participating in lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. During my 8-week internship, I attended and participated in several meetings with congressional staff on issues important to AOTA and the profession. With each visit, I learned something new that will help me become a successful occupational therapist when I enter the professional arena.
My lobbying experiences began on the second day of my internship. I accompanied one of AOTA's lobbyist, Tim Nanof, to meetings with congressional staff to discuss the Medicare Access to Rehabilitation Services Act of 2005 (H.R. 916/S. 438). Essentially this act would repeal the $1500 cap on Medicare outpatient occupational therapy services, which was imposed by the 1997 Balanced Budget Act (P.L. 105-33). Before the visits, Tim and I discussed AOTA's position on the cap and the lobbying process.
Our first visit was with Representative John E. Peterson's (R-PA) health policy director. The purpose of the meeting was to ask Rep. Peterson to again support the House bill (H.R. 916), which he had supported two years ago. Tim talked about the importance of this bill and provided informational handouts. In the end, it was a very positive meeting with the director assuring us that Rep. Peterson supported this act.
Our next visit, with Rep. Mark Steven Kirk's (R-IL) health staff, also ended with an assurance of support. Our last meeting was with Senator Rick Santorum's (R-PA) health policy director. This meeting was not planned, but the director happily accepted a visit from a constituent -- me! We discussed the cap and how it would directly affect the large elderly population in our state. The director was very friendly and interested in the topic.
I learned many helpful tips by participating in these meetings. First, initial introductions are of the utmost importance. The very first thing to do when meeting with staff members is to shake their hands, tell them your name and what organization you are representing -- a lasting impression begins with a strong introduction. Next, providing a sound definition of occupational therapy is crucial. I fully expected to only listen to the discussion, but was pleasantly surprised when I was asked to define occupational therapy. Occupational therapy students are told to prepare for moments like this, so it is very important to provide the right information so legislators fully grasp the importance and effectiveness of the profession. Third, I learned that offering written information for the member or their staff to review after you depart is fundamental. Most meetings are only 15-30 minutes in length, and a staffer may meet with several people in a day. Leaving informational packets will ensure that the staff will not forget about your topic.
Throughout the next month, I participated in several other Hill meetings. When I felt prepared, it was time to lobby my own members of Congress. These experiences were different from others because I was the person talking about the issues with staff. Leslie Jackson, my fieldwork supervisor and another AOTA lobbyist, accompanied me on my visits to Senator Arlen Specter's (R-PA) and Representative Charlie Dent's (D-PA) offices. With Sen. Specter's health policy staffer, I discussed the Preserving Patient Access to Inpatient Rehabilitation Hospitals Act of 2005 (S. 1405), which would retain the current 50% Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rule (rather than the proposed CMS 75% rule) for inpatient rehabilitation for 2 years. I explained how this act would affect occupational therapy services and the hospitals of Pennsylvania. The staffer informed me that Sen. Specter was very interested in the bill and was considering supporting it. This was an encouraging response and I thanked her for their support.
In my meeting with the health policy director in Rep. Dent's office, I discussed the Medicare cap. Rep. Dent represents my hometown, so I was able to describe how the cap would negatively influence very specific outpatient facilities in our district. We also discussed some of my experiences working with the elderly population in the district and how they would suffer under the cap. The staffer was very attentive and asked several questions about my experiences at home and at AOTA. She stated that the congressman is invested in the health care policies of our district and would consider supporting the act.
By engaging in my own lobbying efforts, I learned additional lessons that may benefit others who would like to advocate for support. For example, be sure to develop an outline of what you want to say and bring it with you. This helped me stay on task and remember what my message was.
Remember to take a deep breath and relax. Although the idea of lobbying can be overwhelming, it should feel like a friendly conversation between individuals. Lastly, and most importantly, make sure to relate your issues to the member's district or constituents. The job of congressional members is to represent their constituents. In order to perform this role effectively, they need to understand how the issues relate to their population. And contrary to some beliefs, I found that they are actually very interested and concerned about the public's ideas, needs, and wishes.
I had amazing experiences during my internship at AOTA. Working in the federal affairs department taught me how policy influences everything in our profession. I also learned how to affect change at even the lowest of levels and that sometimes that is where change has to start. As students, we have to realize that being silent and uninvolved is not an option in our profession. If we want others to know and understand occupational therapy, then we need to involve ourselves in every opportunity. Completing an internship at AOTA is a great start, and I highly recommend this experience to all students who want to increase their skills, gain knowledge, and contribute to the occupational therapy profession.