Psychologists on the Hill: Grassroots efforts and new PAC aid legislative advocacy

APAPO benefits from psychologists’ engagement and its political action committee.

By Government Relations staff

April 11, 2013—Nearly 500 psychologists braved the rain and sleet on Tuesday, March 12 to attend more than 330 meetings with congressional members and staff on Capitol Hill as part of the 30th annual State Leadership Conference (SLC). Every year this high level of grassroots engagement provides a significant boost to the advocacy efforts of the APA Practice Organization (APAPO).

In addition to the ongoing advocacy and education efforts at SLC, the launch of the APA Practice Organization’s new political action committee (APAPO-PAC) in 2012 was a great step forward for the profession. APAPO-PAC is dedicated to supporting candidates who are friends of psychology, and gives psychologists the opportunity to build crucial relationships with key members of Congress who will support APAPO’s legislative advocacy agenda. As political giving is a key part of the advocacy process, APAPO-PAC is one of the advocacy tools highlighted at SLC this year and will help make professional psychology’s voice heard at the national level.

While the launch of the new APAPO-PAC generated excitement at SLC, with a record numbers of donors, the climate on Capitol Hill was still contentious. Participants this year came to Washington during a time of intense debate around spending and budget deficits. With the current state of the economy and a new congress with an extensive laundry list of issues to tackle, these factors created distractions on Capitol Hill.

To prepare participants, APAPO staff provided in-depth issue briefings and visit rehearsals. Doug Walter, managing director and counsel for Legislative & Regulatory Affairs for APAPO’s Government Relations department, discussed strategies for creating “a message in a sound bite” to cover all three issues in a short period of time. The briefings prepared and educated attendees on the issues they would be taking to Capitol Hill as well as the political climate.

The three key advocacy messages psychologists took to their meetings on the Hill were:

Congress should halt plummeting Medicare payments by fixing the payment formula.

The Medicare payment formula as it exists today is causing reimbursement rates for psychologists to plummet. The sustainable growth rate (SGR), a formula used to control spending in the Medicare system, also has decreased reimbursement for psychologists. A solution to the payment formula and repeal of the SGR are critical to ensure fair reimbursement for psychological services in the future.

Congress should pass the Brown and Schakowsky bill to include psychologists in Medicare’s “physician” definition.

Currently psychologists are not included in the Medicare “physician” definition. As a result, psychologists who serve Medicare beneficiaries are subject to additional and unnecessary physician supervision requirements. Currently, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists and chiropractors are included in the definition. The addition of psychologists would not lead to an increase in overall cost, and would allow psychologists to serve the Medicare populations to the full extent of their state licensure.

Congress should make psychologists eligible for Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act incentive payments.

Under the HITECH Act, incentives are available to assist medical providers included under the physician definition with implementation of electronic health records (EHR). During their SLC vists to Capitol Hill, psychologists discussed the importance of making mental health providers eligible for the same incentives as physicians and other providers. Inclusion would ensure that mental health is not left out as health care reform moves toward integrated electronic health records systems. 

After the day on the Hill informing Congress about these issues, a debriefing session was held to discuss the meetings and some of the preliminary follow-up data. During this session, APAPO Government Relations staff was able to discuss the meetings with participants and get an idea of how the offices reacted to the issues presented. Discussion at the debriefing session was positive; a majority of the offices seemed to understand the issues and how important each one is to the future of psychology.

The State Leadership Conference highlights the importance of advocacy at the national, state and grassroots level. With a new Congress, increased focus on mental health and the continued decrease in reimbursement rates for psychologists, it is more important than ever for psychologists to get involved and speak out for the profession.

Grassroots advocacy efforts let members of Congress hear directly from psychologists about how reduced reimbursement rates and decreased access to mental health care will negatively impact their constituencies. 

Even if you can’t get up to Capitol Hill in person, letters and emails to your senators or representative can make an impact. Visit the Legislative Action Center on Practice Central, APAPO’s website, to easily communicate with your legislator. And stay tuned for action alerts from Federal Advocacy Coordinators in your state.