I remember that in middle school we learned the School House Rock song “I’m Just a Bill” which illustrated how a bill gets passed through Congress. I finally got to see much of the process in action, minus a talking and singing paper bill!
The first part of the Congressional Advocacy Conference (CAC) consisted of education on topics such as aging in America and tips on how to properly talk to congressmen. One of the speakers was the current AOSA president and one of our own OS.com writers, Hunter Chapman!
We also learned about the bills we would be discussing on Capitol Hill. These three bills included:
- HR 1688: This bill would allocate 20 new residency positions in the VA healthcare system specifically for optometry. This would help work through the backlog of veterans needing eye care services and give more educational opportunities for recent graduates who want to pursue residencies.
- HR 1312 (National Health Service Corp Improvement Act): This bill would allow optometry back into the National Health Service Corp, a federal program that allows primary care providers to receive scholarships or loan forgiveness in exchange for working in underserved rural or urban areas for a specified number of years. This bill would help meet an overwhelming demand for eye care services in our nation’s health centers and give recent graduates a way to pay off their student loans.
- HR 2 (also known as the “doc fix” or the “SGR fix”): This bill changes the way Medicare pays physicians from a system that has consistently cut reimbursements to a quality and performance based system that should increase reimbursements for all physicians, including optometrists.
Armed with this knowledge, excitement, and previous binge-watching of House of Cards, I set off for Capitol Hill with members of the AOA and other students to be an “optocrat” (a term I heard coined by Dr. Robert Layman from Ohio). No matter your political affiliation, whether it be Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Tea Party, etc., we all have a vested, shared interest in advancing our profession on Capitol Hill.
Due to the busy schedules of many politicians, I met with their legislative aides. The other doctors, students, and I talked about the bills. I was fortunate to discuss the burden of our student loan debt and, in one case, the positive impact optometry has on the VA. The meetings were only about 15 minutes long but were enough to get our points across. All of the people I met were receptive to our ideas, aides and congressmen alike. After each meeting, we reported to a room in one of the House office buildings to write a formal thank you note and report back to AOA about how the meeting went.
This day was particularly important because the sustainable growth rate (SGR) fix was to be discussed and voted on in the Senate later that afternoon. With the help of a friendly docent, the doctor I was with and I obtained passes to the Senate gallery to listen to the debate. In between meetings, it was fun exploring the Capitol Hill area including riding the train that connected the Senate office buildings to the main Capitol building.
Two different senators spoke on the issue. Sen. Jefferson Sessions of Alabama spoke against the SGR fix, saying it would cost the US more money in the long term. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon spoke in favor of the bill. Later that night, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve the bill with a signature from President Obama to come soon afterwards.
This was such an incredible experience not only advocating for optometry, but also watching a bill that I had a small role in advocating get debated in the Senate and eventually pass! It made the political process more real for me and showed that optometry students can have an impact on policies that will affect our futures. I encourage everyone to get involved in your local AOSA chapter and attend future CACs to get more of these victories for optometry!