Washington Scene: STS Members Have Their Day on the Hill

STS News, Fall 2012 -- Six STS members answered the call and traveled to Washington, DC, in early August to participate in the Society’s second Legislative Fly-In of the year.

The STS members added their voices to pressing issues, including:

• replacing the unsustainable Medicare physician payment formula before a 30% reimbursement cut goes into effect on January 1;
• restoring the utility of data contained in the Social Security Death Master File (SSDMF); and
• supporting patient advocacy issues, particularly the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act.

The Fly-In began with a dinner briefing, during which participants were joined by Rep. Larry Bucshon, MD (R-IN), a cardiothoracic surgeon and STS member. Dr. Bucshon stayed for more than an hour to take part in a lively discussion about the future of health care in America.

The next day, Fly-In participants met with their representatives in both the House and Senate. They also attended various fundraisers and met with Rep. Charles Boustany, MD (R-LA), an STS member who has agreed to work with the Society on legislation that would help researchers regain access to data in the SSDMF.

Overall, Fly-In participants said they found the experience very gratifying.

Mark S. Allen, MD, a member of the Society’s Board of Directors and Chair of Thoracic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., shares his experience below.

MY DAY AS A LOBBYIST FOR STS
Mark S. Allen, MD

The alarm went off at 5:45 a.m., just like every other day, but today was different. I had “volunteered” to talk with members of the United States Congress about issues important to cardiothoracic surgery. In other words, I would be one of those dreaded lobbyists. No simple lobectomy or esophagectomy today.

Last night, STS Government Relations staff—Phil Bongiorno, Courtney Yohe, and Bob Kohlmeyer—gave me and the other volunteers a primer on what to discuss and what to expect. They described fixing the doctor payment schedule, known as the sustainable growth rate or SGR (everything in Washington is an abbreviation), something about Social Security Death Master File restrictions, and a bid to reduce lung cancer mortality (S.752/H.R.1394).

As I listened, I wished I had paid more attention in civics class.

STS staff then went over how to navigate the various buildings. I had been to Washington before, but only as a tourist.

STS staff gave us “leave-behind” packets that included a folder with a one-page summary of each issue and an article or two about each point we were making. The orientation meeting lasted until late in the evening.

Today started with breakfast at a restaurant with three Republican Congressmen and lobbyists from other businesses. As I talked to the Congressmen, I realized that they are just normal people, with kids in college and spouses who are upset that they are away from home too much. We all agreed it was too hot in the summer in DC. The Congressmen seemed nice, except I had this odd sensation that if I said the wrong thing, they were going to pass some hideous law that would quadruple my taxes and force me to fill out even more paperwork for every patient I see.

We talked for about 45 minutes on issues ranging from the SGR, to air conditioner givebacks, to wetlands in the South.

My next stop was at the Capitol. Being from Minnesota’s First District, I was scheduled to meet with staff for Congressman Tim Walz (D), and Senators Al Franken (D) and Amy Klobuchar (D).

I found my way to the seventh floor of the Longworth House Office Building. Congressman Walz has only served a few terms, so his office was way up on the seventh floor. Offices are assigned by seniority, so those reelected will eventually reach the first floor.

I took a deep breath before I entered the office, which was a beehive of activity. Three receptionists answered constantly ringing phones. They all seemed to be saying the same phrase: “Thank you for calling Congressman Walz; I’ll let him know your opinion.”

I had an appointment with Carina Marquez, the health legislative assistant for Congressman Walz. A few minutes later, Ms. Marquez approached me and introduced herself. She was about 20 years old; most of the staffers in the office were young—very young.

I closed the meeting by inviting her to come to my hospital and visit the operating rooms, an idea she thought would be “cool.” I gave her my “leave-behind” packet and thanked her for her time. The whole thing lasted 15 minutes.

My next task was to find the Hart Senate Office Building to meet with Senator Klobuchar’s health legislative assistant. An underground train takes people between the Longworth Building and the Hart Building, but you have to be a Congressional member or aide to use it. I figured it would be better not to try. Violating a federal law while on an STS lobby mission might not look too good.

After walking outside in 93°F heat, I was soaked when I reentered the building. Fortunately, the air conditioning allowed me to cool down before my next appointment.

The Senate offices were much larger and much nicer than the House offices. Eventually, Senator Klobuchar’s assistant came out and introduced himself, and we went to a conference room to meet. You might think that Senators would have older staff than Congressmen; nope, he was younger but knew the policy inside and out. I went through the STS talking points, provided the “leave-behind” packet, invited him to Minnesota for an OR tour, and left.

Last on the list was a meeting in Senator Franken’s office, which was in the basement. I initially thought that the basement office was a joke because Al Franken was a comedian on Saturday Night Live (SNL for you young ones), but it turns out that his real office was being remodeled.

Most congressional offices are decorated with all sorts of political stuff: pictures of home, award ceremonies, plaques, and signs that support veterans. In Senator Franken’s office, there were odd-shaped flags, pennants, and pictures that reminded me of Monty Python or the “Theater of the Absurd.”

The meeting with his health legislative assistant went well. She was very nice and supportive of STS and had good things to say about STS efforts to improve quality and patient outcomes.

I had now completed my job as a lobbyist. I reflected on the day as I sat in a taxi in ridiculously bad traffic. I felt like I had been part of the American system of government. I had taken advantage of my right to free speech and had been close to the seat of power that governs our country.

Had I accomplished anything? I was only one physician speaking to three assistants and eating breakfast with three Congressmen. As the taxi moved, a billboard appeared. It was an ad for a lobby group. The catch line was, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” It made me feel a bit better. If more physicians gave up a day or two to do this, perhaps our profession would be better off. We need to stay off the menu and at the table, engaged in health policy.

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STS has a unique opportunity to be on the front lines of health policy discourse in Washington. With your help, the Society can maintain its leading voice in meaningful and innovative health policy. If you have questions or want to learn more about how you can help, go to www.sts.org/advocacy or contact the STS Government Relations staff at (202) 787-1230 or advocacy [at] sts [dot] org.

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