Connect Congress to your Clinic
By Alpha Lillstrom Cheng, JD, MA
In-person conversations are an important and impactful element of advocacy.
While we have all been perfecting our Zoom-game, and “making it work,” it has been too long since we have been able to have face-to-face advocacy conversations. This August, consider inviting your members of Congress to visit you when they are in the neighborhood.
Throughout the year, your lawmakers hear from hundreds of different healthcare providers all asking for policy changes. It can be challenging to rise above the fray so that PPS’s legislative and advocacy priorities stand out. The perspectives offered by constituents can often make a big difference in whether or not a lawmaker decides to engage on an issue. A key to helping policymakers understand and engage on our legislative priorities is to help them visualize you, your private practice outpatient clinic, as well as the patients you serve. PPS’ federal advocacy efforts are robust, however when it comes to advocacy, repetition is key. Until a policymaker understands a magnitude of a problem, they aren’t going to make the effort to fix it.
This past year and a half has been a challenge for everyone. It has also been a time when the unique situation of PPS members has been highlighted for policy makers. Never before have lawmakers been forced to think on a nationwide level and on such a large scale about the economic impact of healthcare providers who are also small business owners. Legislation such as the CARES Act, which created Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans and the Provider Relief Fund, the reduction of CMS’ planned Medicare payment cut from 9% to 3.6%, as well as the extension of the Medicare sequestration moratorium until January 2022 have all been enacted as a result of members of Congress realizing the importance of not just the care you provide, but also the economic impact of your businesses upon the towns you call home. Advocacy on behalf of the Section and the profession is what helped make that happen.
PRIME TIME FOR A SITE VISIT
In August, members of Congress happily return to their districts with the goal of engaging with their constituents—including business owners and healthcare providers. Lawmakers’ schedulers are looking for quality meetings to put on the official calendar. Your offer to host them for an in-clinic visit or request to meet face-to-face will not surprise them. You want to be on their radar because in-district meetings and clinic visits both provide valuable interactions for all involved—including unique opportunities for you to build rapport with members of Congress and their staff while they can see the impact of federal policy in action. As a result of your outreach and engagement, they will think of you—their constituent—as an influential small business owner in the community whose practice improves the economy as well as the physical function of its inhabitants.
A clinic visit significantly improves policymakers’ understanding of the impact of physical therapy because you will have been able to turn otherwise abstract policy conversations and anecdotes into an indelible experience for them. For years to come, your lawmaker will be able to mentally refer back to both you and what you showed them as they toured your facility. If they have not had the pleasure of needing physical therapy in the past, the visit will help them understand how you provide care to patients in addition to a visual memory of where you provide that care.
Additionally, members of Congress are interested in high-touch, high-impact, and high-visibility interactions with their constituents. Most lawmakers are always thinking about how to get reelected and therefore they like to be seen engaging with their community so that the voters feel heard and get the impression that their members of Congress care about them and their needs. When planning the site-visit, identify a few Medicare beneficiary patients who are willing to be part of the tour. There are two reasons for this. First is that federal policy has direct impact on Medicare and so the experiences of Medicare beneficiaries are most relevant to your members of Congress. Secondly, lawmakers welcome the opportunity to engage with voters in a meaningful and memorable way. If any of your patients are friends with the lawmaker or are influential members of the community, they should be at the top of your list of people to include in the visit.
EXTEND AN INVITATION
To get started, you will need to extend an official invitation. It may seem daunting, but it is quite simple. Start by calling your lawmaker’s office and ask for the email address of the person who sets the in-district or recess schedule. At the same time, ask about any internal deadlines they may have for when they need to receive the invitation. If you have an existing connection with the office, email your policy contact and ask them to connect you to the scheduler because you’d like to host the member at your clinic during the next recess.
Next, email the scheduler and clearly offer to host your lawmaker when they are nearby. Check out the PPS Advocacy blog for a template letter to use when you make the request. There will be many people offering visits or asking for meetings during the recess time frame, so your chance of locking in a meeting increases significantly if you are flexible with the dates and time of the visit. For example, it’s best to let them know when you cannot host a visit (like the week you will be on vacation) instead of the other way around.
Some members of Congress like a packed schedule with shorter visits, while others like to take their time. Therefore, it is best to offer a 30-minute meeting, but make sure they know that you are willing to do an hour—and that you would prefer a longer meeting so that you can give them a tour of your clinic and then sit down to chat about legislative issues.
Often a lawmaker will want to publicize that he or she was in town and visiting local businesses. Their communications team will likely be interested in taking photos and possibly posting about the visit on social media. While it is not at all required, consider being open to local press coverage as well as allowing for photos from the visit to be used in press releases. If they have a person talking photos at the visit, you should too. Don’t forget to ask to take a picture of yourself with the lawmaker (and share it with PPS)! If you post any pictures from the visit on social media be sure to use #PPSAdvocacy and tag the lawmaker so they can see it and share it from their social media accounts. Remember however, if you are going to have patients in the clinic at the time, confirm that they are OK with being in any pictures that are taken or shared with Congressional staff or the press.
MARKET THE VALUE OF THE MEETING
When you make the request, focus on marketing the value of the meeting to the member of Congress. As a small business owner, you are used to marketing your business. For this conversation, the goal is to “sell” how much the lawmaker will get out of visiting your clinic.
Begin by identifying yourself and your practice location by the name of your town or referencing it being near a well-known landmark. Some lawmakers (especially those who represent an oddly shaped district or more rural areas) like to make sure to visit every county or large town in their district—so be sure to let them know if you have a clinic in an outlying county or far-flung town. Others are looking to do a number of meetings in a region so it helps the scheduler when you clearly identify the geographic location of your clinic. These details are important so that the schedulers are able to know where your clinic is located without having to go beyond the information you have given them.
It is important that you also provide the scheduler with information about annual patient volume, your patient mix (including what percent of your patients are Medicare beneficiaries), as well as the number of employees. This will show the office the size of your practice and help them realize that you have regular and sustained contact with hundreds of constituents. This kind of information will make it more likely that they recognize the value of putting the meeting on their boss’ calendar.
Another thing to remember is that PPS members sit at the nexus of both healthcare policy and small business issues. Most healthcare providers only wear one hat, therefore it is crucial that you mention the unique perspective you can bring to the meeting because you are a physical therapist who works in a private practice setting. You and the clinic are an integral part of your local economy and community because the presence of the outpatient physical therapy clinic improves both the physical function of its patients and supports the local economy. The wide-ranging economic impact of your clinic also extends to providing good jobs and paying taxes, along with supporting the other businesses that surround you as patients run errands in concert with their physical therapy visits.
Your member of Congress will also find value in being able to access to your sphere of influence. Your invitation should mention your membership in community organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis International, Rotary Club, or other benefit societies. If you are the PPS Key Contact for your legislator, be sure to let the scheduler know. Your many facets of engagement will indicate to them the number of ways in which you serve either PPS and APTA or your community at large. They will use this information to quickly assess how far news of the visit to your clinic will spread as well as how influential you are beyond direct patient care. Members of Congress are always trying to cultivate new “grasstops” leaders as part of their reelection strategy; therefore, being recognized as a community leader will increase the likelihood that the member’s staff will place your clinic on the recess visit docket.
Fundamentally, your meeting request should drive home the value of visiting your clinic. If you are friendly with any of the lawmaker’s staff, forward along your request and ask them to recommend putting you on the schedule. All of the above factors have the effect of being “key words” when the lawmaker’s scheduler, chief of staff, and legislative director huddle to evaluate the pile of meeting and visit requests. In short, they choose who to put on the schedule based upon many factors including: geographic location, whether or not the people they would be visiting are engaged or influential community leaders, what kind of press coverage they can get out of the visit, how relevant the issues are to the committees that the lawmaker serves on, and staff recommendations.
ALTERNATIVES TO IN-CLINIC VISITS
While the ideal way for a member of Congress to learn about the value of the care you provide is through an in-clinic visit, it might not work out to do one this summer or fall. Sometimes the member of Congress’ schedule is already full or they aren’t planning on being in your region at this time. Don’t be discouraged.
There are other options which will make a big impact. Respond to their inability to meet now by extending an open offer for the member of Congress to visit your clinic at their convenience, while also suggesting that the policy staffer or local staff could come instead. It is very common for the Washington D.C.-based health policy staff to travel to the district in order to visit providers for their own education. It is also commonplace for the state-based staff to visit with businesses and local leaders in order to strengthen their relationships in the community on behalf of the member of Congress. In some cases, these visits from staff are a test run for a future visit from the lawmaker themselves.
Another option is to attend any local town hall meetings, meet-and-greets, or fundraisers. If there is one, plan on bringing some of your fellow staff with you. If you have uniforms or customized shirts for use in the clinic, wear those so you can be easily identifiable as a group. Another benefit of wearing your logo is that if you get to chat with a staffer after the meeting, they can read your shirt instead of trying to remember who you are.
LONG GAME OF ADVOCACY
Remember, this effort of connecting Congress to your clinic is part of the long game of advocacy. The goal is to build up and then sustain a trusted relationship between you, your legislator, and their staff. You want to become the person that the staff and member of Congress associate with both the value of physical therapy as well as a thriving and impactful small business in their district. Ultimately, you want to be their touchstone and top-of-mind for any issues that impact healthcare providers and small businesses.
Through face-to-face engagement with your lawmaker and their staff this summer, you will be able to discuss the value of physical therapy and spotlight the issues that directly impact private practice. APTA’s advocacy event planned for September will allow for a suitable interval of time and an ideal opportunity for a follow up conversation.
A PPS webinar about how to request and schedule an in-clinic visit with your member of Congress during the August recess can be viewed at ppsapta.org/advocacy/key-contact-videos.cfm. An additional webinar that covers the nuts and bolts of a successful visit as well as the current top legislative issues to focus on when you meet with your member of Congress is hosted on the PPS website. If you want a refresher about other aspects of advocacy before you meet with policymakers, check out the PPS Key Contact Subcommittee’s videos for advocacy tips and training.
If you are unable to schedule a visit for this summer or fall, don’t worry. Your member of Congress comes back to the district many times throughout the year and all of these tips are applicable year-round. A successful in-clinic meeting is possible at any time.
Alpha Lillstrom Cheng, JD, MA, is a registered federal lobbyist and the President of the firm Lillstrom Cheng Strategies which has been retained by PPS. An attorney by training, she provides guidance to member organizations, companies, non-profit organizations, and political campaigns. For six years, she served as Senior Policy Advisor and Counsel for Health, Judiciary, and Education issues for Senator Jon Tester (Montana) advising and contributing to the development of the Affordable Care Act, as well as working on issues of accountability, election law, privacy, and government transparency.