(from AMA Wire) – Members of Congress will be heading home in a few weeks for summer recess to meet with their constituents—now’s the time to make sure you get a seat at the table to make sure your legislators are well-informed on the issues that you care about. Learn from an expert how to conduct in-person visits with legislators and how to keep that relationship going.
Jim Wilson, PhD, manager of the AMA’s political education programs including the popular AMPAC Candidate Workshop and AMPAC Campaign School, recently spoke about advocating for health care issues during a session at the 2016 AMA Annual Meeting.
You are the best advocate for your patients—and yourself
“There are a whole lot of people who don’t have anywhere near the training you [do],” Wilson said. “Yet they help drive decisions that determine how you do” your work.
“No one else is going to be able to do this for you,” he said. “You’re the best possible advocate that you can have.” So what do you do when you want a member of Congress or a state legislator to vote for or against a bill that you feel strongly about?
Figure out a way to engage legislators on a year-round basis, Wilson said. “It’s important that when you want them to do something, you’re not only there when you need something. Because then they say, ‘Well, they only call me when they want me to do something, but I had a question about loan policy three months ago, and I emailed them and I never heard back.’”
“It’s easy to get cynical about politics,” Wilson said. “Think about it in a different way.” Try to have a symbiotic relationship with them: They need information on health care policy, and you need help with legislation.
“Keep in mind that your elected representatives expect this of different groups,” Wilson said. “If you’re not in the office, the drug company will be, the insurance company will be …. It’s a representative democracy; you have a right to petition the government for grievances, and if you’re not petitioning for grievances, somebody else will be.”
In a survey conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation, senators’ and representatives’ offices were asked how much influence certain activities have on their decision making. The No. 1 influence was in-person visits from constituents.
“They expect you to be there,” Wilson said. “They expect to hear from you …. When you’re personally taking the time to visit your representative, you’re making a difference.”
How to be better at advocacy “asks”
When you prepare for a meeting—whether it’s in Washington or your state capitol or even the county commissioner’s office—take time to better understand who your lawmaker is, Wilson said.
To better understand your legislator, pay attention to these four things:
- Interests. They might be a business professional, a physician, a nurse, a software engineer or a farmer, Wilson said. “Is there any way you can find an intersection between what they know and care about as a legislator and what you know and care about in terms of health care policy?”
“What are they doing in their regular life?” he said. “What are they interested in, or what are they working on? Can you make your ask relevant to them?
- Leadership. “Keep in mind if they’re in leadership, whatever party … if they’re the minority leader or the majority leader or a whip, their interests are a little different,” he said. “If there’s legislation out there, they have an interest in either getting it passed or holding it up. Can you get on the right side of that?”
“If they’re in leadership, they know the issues,” he said. “You have to give them a reason why to vote yes and not hold up the bill or vote no.”
- Committees. “What committees are they on?” Wilson said. “Are they on an education committee? You might have to educate them a little bit more about health care policy. If they’re on a health committee, they’re probably going to be pretty conversant with the issues already, and you might take a different tactic with them.”
- Positions taken. “Sometimes people go into a meeting to lobby somebody, and they don’t realize that [they] have already taken a position on the bill,” Wilson said. Don’t waste your time if they’ve already made up their mind and stated it publicly. Do your research.
Once you have done your research and are prepared, it’s time for the visit. But how do you conduct yourself from the moment you enter the office?
- Identify yourself. “When you go in, quickly introduce yourself,” Wilson said. “Say who you are and where you’re from. Establish that connection right away. Make sure they realize that you are in fact a constituent.”
- Get right to the point. “‘I want you to vote this way on this bill,’” Wilson said. “Make it clear, make it simple.” If they have an interest in that issue, explain why it is important to you.
- Focus on the patient impact. “When you make that ask,” he said, don’t talk about yourself. Rather, talk about the people who are going to be your patients. “[Legislators] understand what being a patient is because they’ve been a patient.”
“Make them understand how a particular policy is going to affect the people that you are trying to take care of,” he said. As healers, physicians have an incredible amount of credibility.
“Once you talk to them in terms of the people you want to take care of,” Wilson said, “They’re going to see your request in a whole different way.” Tell a story about a particular patient or situation that will help them understand the impact on the community.
- Ask for an answer. “Get a commitment if you can,” he said. “If they say no, that’s fine … stay in touch.” Leave behind one or two pages on the issue—something you can get from the AMA—that will summarize what your case is and what you want them to do.
- Express your thanks. “Don’t forget to say thank you afterwards,” Wilson said. “A written note in this day and age is great, an email is still fine, but make sure that they know that you appreciate that they took time out of their schedules.”
In August, Congress will head home for the annual month-long summer recess during which time lawmakers will be back in their districts holding constituent meetings, listening sessions and town halls. Take the time to learn the issues that you care about and set up a meeting to make those concerns known. Check out AMA resources to learn about Medicare payment reform or visit SaveGME.org to learn about advocacy efforts regarding student loan debt.