Physician-activists make a difference on Capitol Hill
By Robert B. Doherty
We all know the type: The colleague who rails against the latest political outrage or scandal and complains that politicians “just don’t get it”—but then dismisses participating in the political process as a “waste of time.”
Washington certainly creates plenty of fodder for cynics who disdain both politics and politicians. Many politicians today seem to care more about scoring partisan points and raising money from special interest groups than acting in the public interest. But how can we expect politicians to work toward the interests of the public when so many of us in “the public” have tuned out of the political process?
Engagement in politics is the antidote to everything that is wrong with politics in 2006.
Engagement in politics is the antidote to everything that is wrong with politics in 2006. Change will occur only when more Americans decide to participate in the political process directly.
At a minimum, participation means voting. But the most effective advocates know that political engagement involves much more than just showing up once a year at the polling booth. The most effective citizen-activists are those who take the time to learn how to influence politicians and then apply this knowledge to getting results.
Citizen-activists know how to craft and articulate an effective message. They learn how to form coalitions with like-minded persons who share their agenda. They organize political and financial support for those candidates who are most likely to support their views. And they understand how local newspapers, radio and television can create channels they can use to get their views out to a much bigger community at little or no financial cost to them.
Citizen-activists in internal medicine
Many busy internists feel they don’t have the time to become citizen-activists. That's because the practice of medicine leaves them little time and energy to practice politics.
ACP understands the constraints on internists’ time, which is why the College has created two programs to help internists become citizen-activists:
Key Contacts. The Key Contact program provides internist-members with access to easy, quick tools to learn about—and act on—ACP’s views on key issues like reforming Medicare payments.
Key Contacts get e-mail alerts in advance of critical votes in Congress, as well as sample letters and suggested talking points they can use to craft their own communications to Congress. Whenever possible, ACP provides Key Contacts with specific information on how a particular issue will affect their own practice and community, allowing them to “tailor” their message to their own Congressional members.
Best of all, the tools Key Contact members need are available with only a few clicks of a computer mouse. The entire process of communicating views to elected lawmakers typically takes no more than five minutes.
The more frequently ACP members participate in the program, the more skilled they become in sending effective communications to lawmakers—and the more well-known they become to members of Congress. Over time, many ACP members have parlayed their involvement in the College’s Key Contact program into an ongoing, sustained and personal relationship with senators and representatives, getting the kind of direct access that hired gun lobbyists can only dream of.
Leadership Day. This annual event provides another opportunity to become an effective citizen-activist.
On May 16-17, more than 260 internists from 42 states and the District of Columbia came for Leadership Day 2006, lobbying legislators on Capitol Hill on key issues for the profession and the specialty of internal medicine. (See "Primary care’s collapse tops agenda on Leadership Day")
Attendees received intensive training on how to communicate the College’s agenda to members of Congress. A seasoned media consultant gave them tips on how to earn free coverage of their views through the press.
They heard from Congressional staff and administration officials on what they need to know about politics and health care priorities to help them articulate their message as effectively as possible. And they met with three influential members of the U.S. House and Senate, who discussed the prospects for action on the College’s priorities.
Turning cynicism to activism
This year's Leadership Day attendees understood that professionalism means not just advocating for your patients at the bedside, but advocating for them in the halls of Congress as well.
Most impressive were the 60-plus medical student and Associate members who took time off from their medical education and patient care responsibilities to come to Washington. They brought a palpable sense of excitement and idealism to the discussions with Congressional officials and staff.
Most importantly, they brought the unique credibility and perspective that comes from representing the generation of physicians that members of Congress will be counting on to take care of themselves, their staff and their constituents.
One of the top issues they emphasized was the importance of reducing the burden of student debt. Among other measures, they asked lawmakers to change federal law to allow students to shop around to consolidate and refinance their taxpayer-subsidized student loans from any approved lender. Currently, students can refinance their debt only by asking their original lender to lower its rates. But without competition, the lenders have no incentive to do so.
Their voices were heard. Within weeks of Associates' discussions during Leadership Day, Congress enacted legislation to allow students to consolidate and refinance their loans through any approved lender.
Were the Leadership Day visits the sole reason Congress agreed to make this change? Perhaps not--but the views medical students and residents expressed during Leadership Day certainly helped create the momentum needed to achieve this important breakthrough.
Complaining to each other about what is wrong with American politics will not make things better, but speaking directly to members of Congress can. The medical students and Associates who came to Washington this spring understood this, and their decision to become personally involved will now pay off for tens of thousands of their colleagues nationwide.
That in turn will mean even broader benefits, hopefully protecting access to care for millions of American patients—all because individual physicians decided to get involved.
Robert B. Doherty is ACP's Senior Vice President for Governmental Affairs and Public Policy.
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