Making Strides for Rural Health Advocacy

One does not simply run through the halls of Congress.

Run? No. Power walk? Certainly.

It’s Advocacy Day at the 2019 Rural Health Policy Institute and Beth O’Connor, along with her team of eight Virginia rural health advocates, are walking through the halls of Congress at a steady clip.

The Executive Director of the Virginia Rural Health Association navigates the hallowed halls with purpose. Not the baggage-encumbered panic of someone about to miss a connection to an international flight, but a determined stride. There is a sense of urgency because not only are there are a lot of issues her team would like to discuss with members of the congressional delegation, but this important day for rural advocacy will go by quick.

It is not too often experts like O’Connor and her team have the opportunity to discuss the healthcare issues facing their rural communities with people at the federal level. According Virginia State Senator, Tim Kaine, events like Advocacy Day are essential to policymakers when considering ways to improve the state of rural health in America.

Kaine notes that in some cases, there is an added element of timeliness attached to the topics discussed, such as correcting healthcare workforce issues nationwide. Currently, Kaine and other members of Congress are rewriting the Higher Education Act. This piece of legislation can have a large impact on the future development of the American workforce, including areas in rural healthcare. 

“The healthcare workforce in rural America is critical,” states Kaine. “And these are the experts, who can tell us how to do it.”

Providing rural healthcare advocates with unprecedented access to lawmakers at a federal level is a core part of NRHA’s mission. With this year’s Advocacy Day following the State of the Union, NRHA CEO Alan Morgan says it will help set the tone for supporting various rural health initiatives as the year moves forward. 

Advocacy Day Starts with Strategy

Before O’Connor and her team start knocking on doors, they spend the first part of the day figuring out how to best maximize the spread of their message. There is a decent amount to cover and a lot of people vying for the congressional delegation’s time, so smart planning is essential.

“It is important that people get the access they deserve,” noted O’Connor “Everyone gets to talk about their piece of the puzzle, about what’s going on in healthcare in our communities,” noted O’Connor.

Rural Health Advocacy Discussions

Advocates like O’Connor talk about issues effecting their communities such as physician training or battling the opioid crisis.

“One of the biggest trends we see discussed is the closing of rural hospitals across the nation,” noted O’Connor. “Forty percent of rural hospitals nationwide are operating on a negative margin . . . makes it difficult for them to serve their community.”

Each of these issues represent pieces of a larger healthcare puzzle. When advocates put those pieces together for policymakers, it paints a clear picture of what’s happening in the healthcare communities of their constituents. With this additional insight, members of congress are given more leverage when trying to push various rural healthcare issues to the forefront of policy discussions.  

The Power of a Staffer

O’Connor states that advocates often meet with Congressional support staff, rather than the members of Congress themselves. However, this is still an unprecedented opportunity to relay key messages onto those who can make a real difference come voting time.

“This is no need for discouragement,” says O’Connor of only getting to speak with aids and support staff. “Staffers have a lot of influence and a lot of power.”

A good indication of success is when those aids write things down says O’Connor. Instead of just nodding along, when something is written down it means they are taking messages to heart. Note-taking is a sign that the advocate has done their job. 

Advocacy Day Ends with Strategy

At the end of the day O’Connor’s team is visibly tired. It’s been a busy and hectic time working the halls of Congress. They are certainly due some well-deserved rest.

Before they can totally rest the team regroups to review what they have learned. Soon another round of strategy will commence, and this one will be ongoing.

After all of the meetings wrap and the debriefing is over, O’Connor’s team ends the day with smiles on their faces. This Advocacy Day has been a success! Hopefully, soon their efforts will bear fruits—easier access to rural care, more patient-centered care delivery, and a general improved wellness for those in living in their rural communities. 

These wins will not come easy. True success will arrive on the wings of Congress. Success will be made qualifiable and quantifiable by whatever actions policymakers will take in support of the rural healthcare initiatives spotlighted by those advocating for change and progress.

To hear more about Advocacy Day, listen to our podcast NRHA 2019 MEDHOST on the Hill.

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