By Denise Williams, News & Views staff
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and largely deserted halls of the Capitol kept AACVPR advocacy champions from descending on Washington, D.C., for the traditional Day on the Hill (DOTH) campaign. Instead of face-to-face time with congressional members, 2021 participants connected via remote meetings held over telephone or Zoom. The focus again this year was the Sustaining Outpatient Services (SOS) Act, which supports reimbursement for hospital outpatient department services delivered at off-campus settings. News & Views spoke with a handful of attendees to get a feel for this year’s event and found that while the in-person experience was sorely missed, the virtual format offered some pleasant surprises.
Stepping Up the Game
One of the most significant benefits, our sources agree, was the noticeably wider spectrum of engagement. Participants who under normal circumstance wouldn’t have made the trip to the nation’s capital—due to travel expenses or the inability to arrange the time off from work, for example—had greater flexibility to join in on calls and online sessions with lawmakers and/or their staff. The mix of participants included everyone from clinicians to patients, both those who had participated before and first-timers. The impacts were palpable:
- Bang for the Buck: Attendees were pleased with the sheer bang for their buck in terms of reach. For GRQ Consulting’s Karen Lui, RN, MS, MAACVPR it was particularly fun and exciting to be on calls with five or six states. “I can’t spread myself around that far in D.C.,” she admits. To share the experience with member-constituents from numerous states, Lui adds, only increased her admiration for AACVPR members who care so passionately for the profession that they carved out the time to participate in DOTH.
- Rehab Represents: Pat Comoss, RN, BS, MAACVPR also relished the opportunity to bring in more people from the rehab community. They accounted for most of the 3-10 participants present on each of her calls or meetings with Pennsylvania legislators, along with the usual standby crew. “We were able to engage more rehab staff from more rehab programs,” she recalls. “From my perspective, that was a wonderful learning experience for those folks because 75%-80% of them were not previously engaged in this process.” Altogether, Comoss estimates, the group engaged 35 different people over the course of 8 remote meetings. Given her goal of educating newcomers and orienting them to the process, and considering the positive feedback she received, Comoss considers this alone a sign of a successful DOTH 2021. “My hope going forward is that they will remember that and choose to participate in the future,” she says.
- Patient Voice: Premise Health’s Ashleigh Funk, CCRP agreed on the importance of getting more people involved in advocacy issues, which she testifies can be difficult even in a relatively large state like Florida. In a typical year, two DOTH participants cover the whole jurisdiction. This year, however, each session included anywhere from 5-8 people from different areas of the state and different backgrounds. As a result, she says, “we could really think outside the box and bring in different perspectives” that might otherwise remain in the background—such as those of actual patients. One of Funk’s own charges wanted to get involved in order to share his life-saving and life-changing experience. The virtual meetings provided the opportunity for him to be heard. “That was a game-changer,” Funk professes. “That’s what the congressional members want to hear. Yes, we’re clinicians and we understand what happens, but we’re not actually the person being affected.”
More Good Vibes…
For her part, Joan Blady-Helfman, RN, BS, FAACVPR welcomed the calmer, quieter environment with virtual DOTH. “You didn’t have to travel, you weren’t exhausted from walking around Capitol Hill, and there were no distractions,” says the program director at Tyler Hill Camp in New Jersey. “To sit there and just go over the talking points was so easy.”
While advocates usually come prepared with information packets, Lorri Lee, BS, ACSM-RCEP CCRP at Christus Health found that being able to share her screen during Zoom calls went a long way in terms of visual effect. Using a website loaded with the locations of most cardiac and pulmonary rehab programs in her home state of Texas, Lee switched screens between calls to display data specific to each applicable district. “I could show them these huge gaps, these huge ‘deserts’ where cardiac and pulmonary rehab doesn’t exist in their districts,” she explains. “That really got some good attention. I’ve not really been able to share as visually before, so I thought that was pretty impactful.” In one meeting, Lee even demonstrated how and why moving the rehab program from a particular medical center would be a good move. “So even when the conversation was about having no access, sometimes it turned to having fairly good access and a robust number of programs but not accessibility.” Or, she elaborated, not the kind of accessibility that patients will navigate heavy traffic, large campuses, and remote parking in order to attend rehab three times a week.
Lee also really appreciated the flexibility of this year’s event, which was billed as a 2-day affair but actually didn’t limit participants to those dates. “It was nice that you didn’t feel like you had to crunch everything in,” she adds. “Literally running from office to office, trying to keep your schedule, is difficult. So not having to do that was something I really enjoyed and appreciated.”
…But a Few Stumbles
Lui, while also appreciative of the scheduling freedoms, notes that making time to accommodate calls over four weeks rather than over just two days was “much more exhausting in a different way.”
Blady-Helfman and Comoss, meanwhile, both point out issues with scheduling appointments back in February, sometimes not getting a response for weeks. “It took a lot of work, as in time and effort, to find the correct people to connect to this year,” observes Comoss, who blames the drag on staff turnover following the start of a new administration coupled with the COVID pandemic, which still has many staffers teleworking.
Funk also missed the lack of camaraderie with other states that livened up previous events. An after-hours event or team-building exercise, she says, would have been the icing on the cake, giving participants from different areas the opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences.
What Will Happen in 2022?
It’s unclear whether virtual DOTH is here to stay, or if a return to Capitol Hill will be possible next year. Despite the less-frenzied pace and other advantages afforded by remote meetings, New Jersey’s Blady-Helfman yearns for the good old days. As someone who’s participated in the event from the very beginning, she believes there are some aspects for which there is no substitute. “Being in Washington, you’re there,” she says. “People see you, people talk to you.”
Others, including Funk and Lee, envision something of a hybrid offering, with some attendees participating on site and others joining in virtually. That may be a conversation for another day, but the current buzz suggests the advocacy community was largely receptive to the DOTH’s virtual pivot this year and found it productive, although the work continues.