A Day on Capitol Hill
By Jeremy Swart, Occupational Therapy Student, The College of St. Catherine
On July 23, 2003, I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in some grassroots advocacy for occupational therapy on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. As a fieldwork student in the State Policy group at the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), I have been able to learn a lot of helpful information concerning the issues facing occupational therapy today as a profession. Several of these issues are hot topics in the current session of Congress and I went to the Capitol to discuss two of these issues with my legislators: the Medicare Part B $1,590 cap on outpatient therapy and the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Before going to the Capitol, I received a briefing from AOTA Political Action Administrator Darlene Dennis and valuable information to use in my discussions with the legislators. The information included handouts for legislators regarding our concerns on the two issues and a brochure about the profession of occupational therapy. I was also given talking points concerning each issue to use in my discussion. This, coupled with the knowledge I had gained on the topics through attending meetings and hearings regarding IDEA and my own research, prepared me well for my discussions.
My first meeting of the day was with Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin (D). Senator Kohl hosts a "Breakfast with the Senator" every Wednesday while he is in Washington for 15-20 constituents. During this time I was able to engage in small talk with the Senator, after which I introduced myself to his health policy director and discussed with her my concerns about the outpatient therapy cap and the reauthorization of IDEA. I gave her the handout and questioned her concerning the Senator's support of S.569 (a Senate bill to repeal the Medicare Cap) and S.1248 (a Senate bill to reauthorize IDEA), and I asked whether he would consider being a cosponsor. She responded that the Senator is behind both of the bills and will vote for them, but that he has a policy of not cosponsoring any bills that do not come out the committees he sits on. I considered this to be a positive response and thanked the Senator for his support.
My next meeting was a short courtesy visit with Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota (D), because we attended the same college. After a brief introduction, I thanked her for her support of H.R. 1125 (a House bill to repeal the Medicare Cap) which she cosponsored and gave her the informational packet. She was on her way to a vote so we parted.
My third meeting of the day was with Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (D) and her health policy director. I thanked Representative Baldwin for her support of H.R. 1125 (she was also a cosponsor) and asked for her continued support of occupational therapy. After our discussion an intern gave me a tour of the Capitol building during which I was able to observe both the Senate and House in session.
I then met with the health policy director for Senator Feingold of Wisconsin (D). This was another positive meeting in which we discussed both S.569 (repeal Medicare Cap) and S.1248 (reauthorization of IDEA). She assured me that Senator Feingold was supporting both of these bills and would vote for them when they came up. I asked whether he would be a cosponsor, and she responded that he ran for office on a promise that he would not sponsor anything that would raise government spending. Because both of these bills would do this, he could not sponsor them, but he would still support them. After thanking her for his support and giving her the information packet, I left the office and my day at the Capitol was finished.
Overall, this was an amazing experience. Having this fieldwork opportunity at AOTA opened my eyes to the impact of the daily workings of the government on our profession. With the changing atmosphere of health care and the impact of legislative issues on our practice as occupational therapists, I believe that it is very important to keep our legislators informed on how these issues affect us, both as therapists and as citizens who receive services. We have a role in shaping and protecting our future and our profession.
I found it very fulfilling and exciting to have the opportunity to explain my viewpoint and opinion on these important issues to my elected representatives and to get an inside view of how the government works. I found all of the legislators to be personable, understanding, and willing to listen. I recommend that all occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants visit with, call, or e-mail their senators and representatives and grasp the opportunity to advocate for your profession.
I also recommend that students take a look at the fieldwork opportunities offered at AOTA. There are many different areas in which to work, and I believe that you would greatly benefit personally, as well as give back to your profession. I will leave this experience with increased knowledge of my profession and a strong respect for those who work and volunteer day after day in this arena, striving to make things better for each occupational therapist and occupational therapy assistant.