Pam Ditto, MBA, RRT, CPFT, headed to DC from her home in Tennessee, eager to team up with long-time PACT buddy Tammy Robinson, RRT, for the AARC’s day on the Hill.
Gary Wickman, MS, RRT, FAARC, arrived in town on Sunday evening after a cross country flight from Washington State. He and his fellow PACT members rested up a bit and then spent Monday morning visiting Ford Theater before making their way to the PACT prep session later that day.
Mike Madison, MBA, RRT, drove up from Richmond, VA, on Monday, where he had just spent a nice weekend with his parents after getting back to the states from a 13-day business trip to Europe. He settled into his room at the Key Bridge Marriott where everyone was staying, then it was off to the prep session with his fellow PACT members from California.
By Tuesday morning all three of these AARC volunteers were pumped up and ready to head up Capitol Hill. After a hardy breakfast at the hotel, the first visits got underway.
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The excitement mounts
“I always get excited before my first visit and this year was no different,” says Wickman, who has served as a PACT member since the group was founded and was joined this year by Michelle Pedicone, MSc, RRT-NPS, Earl Moore, RRT, and Ramon Hollander, MBA, RRT.
“Our first visit was in Congressman Rick Larsen’s office. We met with his health care aide, Sam Schuiteman, and actually got to see the Congressman for a couple of minutes.”
The chance encounter went well, with Rep. Larsen once again showing support for the messages the Washington delegation brought to the table. “We felt very uplifted after the visit because it was so positive,” says Wickman. “The Congressman would help us when we have a bill that would support respiratory therapists being providers for telehealth in Medicare.”
Up and at ‘em
With 54 congressional offices to cover, Madison and his crew from California — Monique Steffani, RRT-NPS, RRT-ACCS, Cathy Guanzon, RRT-NPS, and Wayne Walls, MBA, RRT — knew they would need to get going as early as possible. ”I was up and moving by 5:30 a.m.,” says the CSRC president.
After collecting their drop off packets and snapping a few pictures, they hopped into an Uber for the drive to the Rayburn House Office Building.
“Our driver knew enough shortcuts to get us there quickly,” says Madison. ”We were the only four in line at the security check, which made life easy.” After a quick coffee at the Dunkin Doughnuts in the Longworth building they split up to make their assigned visits. “I had the privilege of being accompanied by Angela Merkens, an Alpha-1 patient,” says Madison.
Their first appointment was in Rep. Darrell Issa’s office. ”Having met Congressman Issa several times before, and because Angela and I are both his constituents, I was looking forward to our meeting with his legislative aide, Cassie,” says Madison.
Like Wickman, they were pleasantly surprised when in walked the Congressman himself. He stopped to say hello, and after a little small talk, they sprung their “elevator speech” on him and it all went well. “As always, he was very warm, very engaging, and listened intently to our brief statements,” says Madison.
They left the office feeling like they’d “hit a home run.”
Tag team in town
Having served together for the past 17 years, Ditto says she and Robinson have developed a smooth routine for addressing RT concerns with their elected officials, and they lost no time putting their “tag team” approach into action in the legislative offices of Tennessee.
Their annual visit to Rep. Phil Roe’s office went particularly well. “I worked with Dr. Roe for many years prior to his entering politics,” explains the therapist. “We always have a personal visit.”
An OB/GYN by training, Rep. Roe understands health care and knows the important role RTs play in the system. “He assured us any legislation presented would include RT,” says Ditto. “He will also consider signing on to the COPD Caucus.”
The rest of the morning proceeded on course for all three PACT members. “I was worried about the receptions we would get this year because it seemed to be harder to get visits scheduled, but things were going well so far,” says Wickman.
They were about to get even better, thanks to his last visit of the morning with Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.
“This was a great visit because the Congresswoman was willing to submit our request for an appropriation ‘ask’ to study COPD and how respiratory therapists affect the quality of care and the cost of care,” he says.
The request would have to be submitted by the next morning, though, so Wickman quickly got in touch with AARC leaders to get the ball rolling. The fast turnaround left him feeling like he and his colleagues had accomplished a major feat. “This was the first time I was able to get something like this done with one of our legislators,” he says.
Wickman credits the quick action to the personal relationship the Congresswoman has had with RTs.
“I think the key to get her to agree to our ‘ask’ was that she had a baby who was born without a kidney and was in the NICU with respiratory therapists working with her child, so she was very familiar with our work and saw first-hand what we can do for our patients,” says Wickman.
He and his fellow Washington State PACTers headed off to lunch in the Longworth building cafeteria with a definite “win” in their column.
Ditto also found visits a little harder to schedule this year, but she and Robinson forged ahead with the meetings they were able to arrange. “This year it was difficult to get appointments and offices were strict to only see constituents,” she says.
She was impressed by the staff she was able to meet with though, particularly one gentleman in Sen. Bob Corker’s office. He was an older legislative aide — and that was a first for her.
“Most are young bright ambitious individuals,” she says. “This gentleman was informed, and definitely informed on the health care issues.”
When it came time to break for lunch, Ditto and Robinson departed Capitol Hill for a trip to Mei Wah’s. “This is our go-to place for every trip,” says the PACT member.
Making new connections
Madison and Angela were joined by AARC Chief Business Officer Tim Myers, MBA, RRT-NPS, FAARC, for their last scheduled visit of the morning with Megan Herber, MPH, in Rep. Doris Matsui’s office.
“Last fall a CSRC delegation traveled to Congresswoman Matsui’s in-district office in Sacramento and met with Devan McBrayer, MPH, who spoke highly of Megan.” Meeting Herber in person helped them put “a second face on Congresswoman Matsui’s offices,” says Madison.
He and Angela grabbed at quick lunch in the Longworth building cafeteria, then it was off to Rep. Mike Thompson’s office, where they were joined by AARC Immediate Past President Frank Salvatore, MBA, RRT, FAARC, for a great visit with Thompson’s legislative assistant, Casey Badmington.
They know who we are
The legislative office visits continued throughout the afternoon, with all three PACT members buoyed by the positive responses they continued to get from their members of Congress and their Congressional aides.
“It was very clear that all are very receptive to the inclusion of RTs in telehealth legislation, and will likely co-sponsor the Telehealth Parity Act when resubmitted,” says Madison. ”It was a very positive afternoon and I was very energized all the way through.”
“All encountered knew what an RT was, so I felt we have done a great job educating on the importance and role of RTs in the health care continuum,” says Ditto.
Wickman was happy to see continued progress on the AARC’s mission to include language in the FY 2018 Labor-HHS Appropriations Report asking CMS to conduct a data analysis of COPD claims in various health care settings that will show how respiratory therapists improve health outcomes, reduce hospital readmissions, and lower costs.
“Our meeting with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s health care aide went very well and he was very interested in supporting our appropriations ‘ask’ as well,” says the PACT member. “When we told him about the support we had from Congresswoman Beutler, he was willing to work with their office.”
Wickman says getting legislators to work together like this “really helps our cause.”
A new tradition
As the day wound down to a close, Madison and his team from California took a few moments to gather for a few more photos with Angela and he handed out a special memento to everyone who made the trip from the Golden State.
“Earlier in my trips back and forth between buildings, I stopped at the House Gift Shop and purchased four souvenir coins. The coins have the seal of the U.S. House of Representatives on one side and the image of Liberty, the statue that is on the top of the U.S. Capitol dome, on the other,” he says. ”I handed each of my colleagues — including Angela — a coin.”
He started the tradition during the 2016 Advocacy Day session and wanted to keep it going this year.
The day ended with an after-hours session that included a going-away reception for long-time AARC Director of Government Affairs Cheryl West, who was set to retire the week after.
“Good food, good wine, and great company with our fellow State PACT reps,” says Ditto.
We do make a difference
All three PACT members were tired but happy as they left DC on Tuesday morning. “We felt RT will finally be included in any new bill,” says Ditto. “This is great news for our patients.”
“I had a great feeling of accomplishment and gratification, to say the least,” says Madison, who was heading back down I-95 to continue his visit with family. “As I left for Richmond that day, I had a very deep seated feeling and confirmation that I live in the greatest republic of the world.”
Says Wickman, “This year was a very powerful experience, especially with the ability to get the appropriations ‘ask’ done.” It reminded him why he’s been making the trek up Capitol Hill all these years.
“The reason I keep coming back is because sometimes we are able to make a difference for our patients and our profession.”
124 PACT members from 41 states and the District of Columbia lobbied their members of Congress on issues important to the respiratory care profession during 318 scheduled meetings on April 4. They were joined by two patients, one retired RT with COPD, a dozen or more RT students, Tonya Winders, from the Allergy & Asthma Network, and Jamie Sullivan, from the COPD Foundation. More than 30,000 messages were sent to Congress in support of the PACT visits through our Virtual Lobby Week as well.
Now it’s up to all of us to keep the momentum going. Contact your members of Congress today and ask them to support the inclusion of RTs in any telehealth legislation that is introduced into Congress this year.