Washington Scene: STS Key Contacts Take Action

STS News, Fall 2013 -- STS Key Contacts took advantage of the August congressional recess to promote the Society’s advocacy priorities—and they’re getting results. Stephen J. Lahey, MD and Shanda H. Blackmon, MD, MPH share their experiences below.

To learn more about the STS Key Contact program and make a commitment to STS advocacy, visit www.sts.org/keycontact.

Chief, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery University of Connecticut Health Center

Dr. Lahey (right) with Rep. Elizabeth Esty

The importance of establishing a personal relationship with our representatives in Washington became quite evident to me when Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District visited the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. The event was planned by STS Government Relations staff in cooperation with the UConn Health Center and the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

The Congressional visit gave me, an STS Key Contact, the opportunity to speak with Rep. Esty personally and without the typical distractions of a busy day on Capitol Hill. During our time together, we discussed congressional efforts to reform Medicare physician payment and repeal the flawed Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula. These issues are vitally important to STS, and not only did Rep. Esty understand our message, but also, after spending several hours together, I think she now views me as a friend and resource.

Having Rep. Esty come for a site visit was extraordinarily productive because we were able to deliver our message clearly. She was also able to see our enormous construction project—the new UConn Health Center— where many of her constituents work and receive medical care. The benefits of the day’s activities were shared equally by Rep. Esty, the Dean of the medical school, me, and STS staff, which made the visit all the more productive and enjoyable.

That evening, STS-PAC hosted a fundraising cocktail reception at a restaurant in downtown Hartford, which was a tremendous success. It was a pleasure to interact with Rep. Esty and her husband on a more social level. I would encourage other STS members to engage in similar activities, since this is by far the easiest and most effective way to get our message heard in Washington, where it counts.

Chief, Division of Thoracic Surgery Houston Methodist Hospital, Texas Associate Professor, Weill Cornell Medical College

Dr. Blackmon (center right) with Rep. John Culberson (center left)

After winning an STS scholarship to attend the STS Legislative Advocacy Workshop in 2009, I was determined to visit Washington, DC, every year to advocate on behalf of STS and my cardiothoracic surgery colleagues. Prior to my first meetings on Capitol Hill, I learned from STS staff about the important issues affecting our specialty and how to express those concerns to members of Congress and their staffs. I have continued annual travels to Washington, meeting with members of Congress about issues such as the dwindling cardiothoracic surgical workforce, the need to repeal SGR, support for residency training, advocacy for lung cancer patients, and health care reform.

STS now hosts a series of focused Legislative Fly-Ins, allowing STS members to meet with members of Congress whenever pertinent issues arise. This year, I was able to participate in a targeted visit to Congress just before lawmakers crafted a bill to reform SGR and right as policymakers were considering lung cancer screening as a potential essential health care benefit.

When I flew from Houston to Washington, I shared the same flight with three congressmen. Because of my previous experience, I was comfortable taking advantage of the long flight to share some of our issues with them.

After returning from Washington, I gave an interview to the Houston Chronicle about advocating for patients with lung cancer and lung cancer screening. In the weeks that followed, the United States Preventive Services Task Force endorsed lung cancer screening, paving the way for it to become an essential health care benefit; a key congressional committee unanimously approved a bill that could reform Medicare physician payment; and I was contacted by my local representative to give him a tour of our hospital.

In August, I spent the day with Rep. John Culberson at my hospital, talking about issues important to cardiothoracic surgeons and their patients, research funding, and health care. These new relationships I have formed with members of Congress and time I have spent with fellow cardiothoracic surgeons are meaningful. This is an important way I try to give back to my profession. I have enjoyed learning about the system and look forward to taking my own children to Washington when they are old enough to advocate for issues that are important to them.