State Beat: Stories from the Hill

Several hundred psychologists traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for expanded mental health care coverage during the Practice Leadership Conference.

By Hannah Calkins

Every March, psychology’s leaders from all over the United States and Canada convene in Washington, D.C., for the Practice Leadership Conference. On the final day of the conference — after three days of rigorous dialogue, education and advocacy training — delegates from each state go to Capitol Hill to lobby their senators and representatives on behalf of their patients and profession.

This year, Hill Visit day fell on March 7. It turned out to be a fortuitous day for psychologists to advocate for mental health coverage: Just the night before, House Republicans released their plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), sending politicians and staffers all over the Hill into frenzied uncertainty. The psychologist advocates were not demoralized by these developments, but instead energized, focused and optimistic.

Rhode Island delegation meeting with Sen. Whitehouse. (From left) Wendy Plante, PhD, Jonathan Gershon, PhD, Peter Oppenheimer, PhD, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. “Today is a great day to be here. There is a void that is being created by changes to the health care law, and it’s important that mental health services get pulled into the vacuum that is created by that void,” said Deborah Okon, PhD, who was waiting with her colleagues from the New Mexico Psychological Association (NMPA) for a meeting with a staff member from the office of Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.

Okon, who has served as a federal advocacy coordinator — a psychologist appointed by their state psychological association to organize grassroots advocacy efforts — for NMPA for nine years, said that she and her colleagues stayed up late studying the Republicans’ bill. Grisham’s staff member was grateful for this preparation during their meeting, as he hadn’t yet read the whole bill.

Okon raised her concerns to the staffer, noting that the bill stipulates that coverage for mental health and substance abuse services would be optional. “We think funds for those services should be mandatory,” Okon told him.

On the other side of the Capitol, delegates from the Rhode Island Psychological Association (RIPA) were shuttled from an antechamber outside a Senate judiciary confirmation hearing and into a busy hallway to meet with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

“We’ve found our congressional delegation from Rhode Island to be very receptive to our concerns,” said Wendy Plante, PhD, RIPA’s federal advocacy coordinator, after the meeting. “They appreciate hearing our stories from the state, especially in this tough political climate.”

Psychologists who met with members of Congress who do not support the ACA may have gained more traction with a second talking point: requesting co-sponsorship of the Medicare Mental Health Access Act, which would include psychologists in Medicare’s “physician” definition.

Diane Marti, PhD, and Jim Madison, PhD, of the Nebraska Psychological Association (NPA), emphasized this point in their meeting with Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. Drawing on compelling examples from their professional and personal experience, Marti and Madison effectively conveyed to the senator how the exclusion of psychologists from the physician definition obstructed access to care.

Marti, who is both president-elect and public education coordinator of NPA, said after the meeting that she appreciated getting face time with Fischer. “She seemed open to using us as resources, and I think we appealed to her on a basic, personal level — how can you help us, and the people we serve, as a fellow Nebraskan?” Marti said.

Later, Andrew Fink, PsyD, and Matthew Syzdek, PhD, both early career psychologists with the Minnesota Psychological Association (MPA), reflected on their day. They had just come from a meeting in the office of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., where the staffer they spoke with assured them that “the boss” supported their work.

"Our visits today went well. Speaking with the Republican side was interesting. I think we made some persuasive arguments to them about the economic end of things,” Fink said.

Syzdek agreed. He said that their meetings on the Hill were productive, but it was important to continue their advocacy at home. “Psychologists need to take a two-prong approach,” he said. “Today we met directly with lawmakers; tomorrow, we have to reach out in our communities.”

For more stories and photos from psychologists’ visit to the Hill, search #PLC2017 on Twitter. 



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