Bridges to consumer groups must be built... by June

Sunday, March 31, 2002

By most accounts AAHomecare's February Leadership Conference was a success. There was a bit of complaining about the cost of attending and the difficulty getting into Tucson, Ariz., but association staff inherited contracts signed by their predecessors and have assured everyone that future Leadership Conferences will be held at less expensive venues that are easier to get to in an effort to get more participation from smaller members.

The two-day event featured a diverse group of national speakers who delivered thought provoking, often controversial, presentations. There were numerous opportunities for networking among industry leaders and Val Halamendaris of NAHC even showed up to lend his support to the association's PAC event. His presence also fueled numerous rumors about a potential AAHomecare/NAHC merger.

Though several of the association's special interest councils did some hard work and planning in their meetings, no action agenda came out of the general sessions. Now the association and the industry must turn their collective attention toward having a successful Legislative Policy Conference (LPC) in Washington this June. In so doing, association staff and the volunteer leadership must build the program around five assumptions.


Despite a lot of rhetoric and posturing over the next few months, Congress will not pass any substantive Medicare or healthcare reform legislation in 2002. This is an election year and neither political party can afford to compromise on some of the fundamental positions they hold on key components of reform such as prescription drug coverage, long-term care insurance and the long discussed patient's bill of rights. Each party knows that yielding to the other could cost them one or two seats in either the House or the Senate where razor thin majorities are at risk.


An election year is the time to build relationships with elected officials. Rather than repeating the annual "How To Lobby" workshops, presentations should be focused on how to get involved in political campaigns, what the rules and limitations are on political fund raising and opportunities to gain profile in political organizations. The healthcare interests against whom we are competing for limited funds mastered these skills long ago and their efforts pay off time and time again. While raising money and building a political action committee are critically important, they are not the only qualifications for becoming a player in the public policy arena.


We must accept the fact that, no matter how passionate or legitimate the arguments may be, a provider or a manufacturer telling a legislator to increase funding is seen as a "special interest" looking to protect his or her own wallet. If the LPC follows the traditional format and the only people sent to "lobby" on Capitol Hill are providers and manufacturers, we will continue to find out that our issues are often dismissed out of hand and that we are the last ones in line for any increases in funding.

Our association and the entire industry must make this year the beginning of an ongoing effort to put a human face on the issues important to each of us. The way to do this is for every company attending the conference to subsidize the attendance of an articulate consumer. Those companies that can't pick up the whole tab should make a contribution to AAHomecare, earmarked for a consumer participation fund that will enable the association to identify and subsidize consumer to participate in the conference.

A prominent congressional staff member once said that when it comes to healthcare issues the words of a passionate consumer who takes the time to visit their representative is equal to 100 votes. That person has ten family members who will vote for the person who shows compassion and a willingness to act on behalf of their loved one. Each of those ten people has the ability to influence the opinions of ten undecided voters.


With the majorities so close, our short time on Capitol Hill is best spent meeting with legislators who are known to be in tight races. The association has done an excellent job of educating key Members and the only additional visits to these folks should be ones that include a consumer from their district who can tell them what the real impact of their actions will be. It is also good to renew acquaintances with your own representative, especially if you have a consumer along to put a face on the message. But the big effort should be to bring our message, supported by a consumer or two, to the Members who are campaigning for their political lives. It makes no difference whether or not they are on a relevant committee, the legislative process is a game of horse trading and Republican and Democratic caucuses are willing to do anything they can do help an incumbent retain their seat.


The industry must remember that whining doesn't work. Tales of woe about how the quality of service will suffer, how people living in rural areas will lose their service or how you will have to lay off workers, just don't cut it. Every participant should find a way to talk about the positive benefits of the services they provide and the consumers that attend should be trained to tell "The Hill" what those services mean to them and their families. That is not to say attendees should not let their representatives know what the negative impacts of various proposals are. But this information should be factual and imbedded into a positive message that leaves the legislator thinking; "Supporting homecare is the right thing to do. I met a person who has benefited tremendously from these services and I know there must be many more like them in my district."

Finally Bringing a consumer to Washington to help deliver the homecare message in June is just the beginning. Our industry must commit itself to building bridges with consumer groups and finding ways to establish common ground with them. We must draw a larger circle and always ask ourselves how can we bring more of our customers into the circle with us.

Homecare, Home Respiratory Services, DME and Rehab all have powerful, positive messages but we just don't seem to be able to get those messages through to the right people. Maybe that is because we have not recruited or involved the right folks to deliver that message.

- David T. Williams is director of government relations for the Invacare Corporation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. HME