Carter L. Alleman, J.D.
Meeting Your Members of Congress
As a surgeon advocate, your most powerful tool is frequent contact with your elected officials to offer your expertise and keep them informed on key surgical issues. Your personal experience brings a human touch to the issues they have often only read about on paper or know in terms of numbers and cold policy jargon. Most policy makers, and their staff, will be grateful to have the reliable resource of a constituent’s experienced perspective on often complicated issues. Use the tips below to have the best possible meeting, which can lay the groundwork to develop mutually beneficial future relationships.
The CDC encourages providers to take the following actions:
- Educate yourself about your Representative and Senators. Prior to your meeting visit your Representative’s and two Senators’ websites, taking some time to read their biographies and the issues they support, what committees they sit on, what leadership role he or she may have, and what caucuses they might sit on (helps identify issues of key importance to each legislator). You can also sign up for their e-newsletters, which will keep you up to date on what your legislators are doing.
- “Friend” or “Follow” your Representative and Senators on social media. Many politicians rely on social media as a quick and easy way to get the word out to constituents. And it is a two-way medium—you can let them know what you think by responding to their posts.
- Know the issues. Before your meeting, review the position(s) you are trying to convey. Be focused, and don’t plan to talk about too much in one visit. Routinely read the ACOS’ Washington Watch, Advocacy in Action, and ACOS Brief to keep abreast of the latest developments in health policy. You may also research your legislator’s voting record to help you prepare for what issues you choose to discuss.
- Frame your issue in the context of your legislator’s viewpoint. Include real-life examples of how this particular legislation will help or hurt you, your patients or your district.
- Always be clear with your legislator about what you want to them to do—in other words, have an “ask”! This reinforces the importance of your communication and holds the legislator accountable. “Asks” range from cosponsoring and supporting a bill, to simply asking your legislator to keep in touch and use you as a resource as a constituent with expertise on healthcare issues.
In addition to in-person meetings, you can communicate with your legislator via letter, fax, e-mail, telephone call or a combination of these. Legislators want to hear from their constituents and are sensitive to their opinions. Thoughtful, sincere, and precise comments are most helpful when debating or discussing a bill or proposed rule.
In order to make your written communication effective there are a few simple rules to follow:
- Format the letter properly with the correct salutation
- Honorable (all Representatives and Senators)
- Representative (all rank and file Representatives)
- Senator (all rank and file Senators)
- Leader (Majority and Minority leaders in the House and Senate)
- Chairman/Chairwoman (Chairperson for each committee)
Always be aware of the tone of your letter
A polite, informative tone is the best to use. Avoid language that might seem threatening.
Include information about yourself
It is useful to include information about your role as an osteopathic surgeon and where you work. Remember you are trying to create a connection with the legislator.
Focus on a few key points
Address only one issue in the letter, use common terms, and avoid overly technical language. Explain the potential impact on your patients, on quality and accessibility to care, and on your practice. A one-page letter is key.
Note a bill number/title and description of what it will do
Generally, the common abbreviations for state legislative bills are House Bill (H.B.), Senate Bill (S.B.) or Assembly Bill (A.B.) and bills are referenced as H.B. 134, or S.B. 568, or A.B. 9123. In some cases, using H or S or A is also acceptable.
When closing, mention the bill number/title again and encourage support or opposition
Recap your main points and encourage the specific action you are requesting.
Offer to be a resource and provide your contact information
Physicians are generally viewed positively and are seen as experts on medical/clinical issues. Legislators or their staff may very well take you up on your offer and call. If they do, be sure to take the call or ask to schedule a time to talk.
When calling your legislator, expect to talk to the receptionist or staff person responsible for the issue you want to discuss, such as the Health Legislation Aide. If you cannot reach the staff person responsible for your issue, you should leave a message with the receptionist.
Similar to writing a letter, it is important that you keep your message a few simple points. Reference the bill number, offer your comments, and ask what position the legislator has taken on the bill. Avoid being argumentative or trying to “win” the discussion. Before ending the call, offer to follow up with a letter recapping your discussion.
Give the staff person your telephone number so they can easily contact you if they need further information. If the staff person has been helpful, courteous, or otherwise accommodating, note in the follow-up letter. Positive strokes are valuable in an environment where often the negative is emphasized.