First Ever Mental Health OT Congressional Briefing Held
By Andrew Waite
At AOTA's House and Senate Congressional staff briefing in support of the Occupational Therapy Mental Health Act, the answer was in the questions.
"I was thrilled with the level of questions," Virginia Stoffel, PhD, OT, BCMH, FAOTA, AOTA's vice president and associate professor in the Department of Occupational Sciences & Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said following the event. "Based on the kind of questions they had and their focus on how occupational therapy can affect everyday life, it was clear that they listened carefully. It didn't sound like anybody was questioning how important OT is when it comes to mental health services."
The March 19 briefing, with more than 30 attendees representing more than a dozen Congressional offices as well as the National Alliance of Mental Illness and the American Psychiatric Association, provided details about why Congress should enact the Occupational Therapy Mental Health Act (HR 3762).
The legislation would add occupational therapists to the current list of "behavioral and mental health professionals" in the National Health Services Corps (NHSC), making them eligible to participate in the NHSC Scholarship and Loan Repayment Programs. U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) along with co-sponsors U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), and Corrine Brown (D-FL), introduced the measure in December.
The briefing focused on the value of occupational therapy in mental health to mount support for the bill, which is one more way AOTA is fighting to ensure occupational therapy has a seat at relevant health care tables. For more on AOTA's advocacy efforts, visit AOTA's legislative action center.
Members interested in supporting this bill can contact their representatives in Congress via the legislative action center listed above and urge their support through co-sponsorship of this bill.
At the briefing on Capitol Hill, just a block from the U.S. Capitol, Stoffel was joined by Jeffrey S. Janofsky, MD, associate professor, director of the psychiatry and law program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore; Shira Zapinsky, MS in occupational therapy candidate at Towson University in Maryland; and Brooke Muller, MOT, OTR/L, of Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, to discuss occupational therapy's vital role in mental health care and how the profession helps consumers manage serious mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major clinical depression, and PTSD, to achieve optimal functional performance in their everyday lives.
"On Capitol Hill, there is a broad understanding of occupational therapy related to physical health conditions. But there has not been an historic understanding of what we do as occupational therapy practitioners," said Tim Nanof, AOTA's director of Federal Affairs. "Our panel today really gave specific examples of how occupational therapy can change people's lives. They provided very specific examples so the [Congressional] staffers could see from A to B how recovery happens."
Attendees had questions about how occupational therapy can be part of community mental health systems and how payment for services will play out. AOTA's Federal Affairs team will be addressing these kinds of details, particularly as the Affordable Care Act begins to take effect.
What is clear is that occupational therapy practitioners are valued for their work in mental health––and it isn't just members of the profession who believe that.
"Occupational therapy services are essential in inpatient, outpatient, and partial settings," Janofsky, a psychiatrist, said during the briefing. "Occupational therapists are critical in deciding what patients' day-to-day functional deficits are—what changes can be made to improve their function and help them get out of the hospital and move positively forward with their life. I don't know how to fix this legislatively, but I can tell you as a psychiatrist how essential occupational therapy is."
Though AOTA's event was successful in reaching a number of legislative offices, the work is not done.
"We have a list of all the staffers that were here, and we know they heard our powerful message," Nanof said. "We have our work now in front of us as we begin providing specific policy details, to make sure that we are addressing any unanswered questions."
Click here to watch a tape of the briefing. It is just under an hour long, and may be appropriate for a facility lunch and learn session, a classroom learning tool, or just to refresh your sense of the vitality of occupational therapy in mental health.
Andrew Waite is the associate editor of OT Practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.