This is a quick glimpse into Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, where America’s rural health leaders connect with policy makers to tell their stories and champion change.
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Tim Kaine: We need the advocacy of our rural health advocates to help us in a couple of areas. What's the next step forward to provide more coverage at a lower cost to Americans, especially folks who live in rural America? We need your expertise on workforce issues, and there's a timeliness thing. We're rewriting the Higher Education Act now. We have a huge ability to affect the workforce, so the healthcare workforce in rural America is critical, and these are the experts who can tell us how to do it.
Host: That's the voice of U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. We had the opportunity to speak with him right after his presentation to the hundreds of rural health professionals from around the country who gathered in D.C. to attend the 2019 Rural Health Policy Institute hosted by the National Rural Health Association.
Every year the NRHA offers rural health advocates an opportunity to speak directly with some of the country's most influential policy and lawmakers about real challenges faced by this nation's rural health communities. They call it Advocacy Day, a chance for the passionate healthcare professionals and conference attendees to descend upon Capitol Hill and rally for the future of rural health.
NRHA's chief executive officer, Alan Morgan, describes the significance for advocates to have face time with representatives at the federal level.
Alan Morgan: We're at the beginning of the legislative process for this calendar year. You just had the State of the Union last night. Following up on that, these congressional offices are going to be flooded with people that are just – their message is the importance and value of rural America. To be able to set that tone and tenor for the rest of this year – it's going to hopefully set the stage for where we need to be.
Host: So, this year's conference advocates began their day with strategy sessions to determine the best course of action to maximize the spread of their message when addressing the congressional delegations.
Beth O'Connor, executive director of Virginia Rural Health Association and host of The Rural Health Voice Podcast, joined us in the MEDHOST podcast lounge the day before her trip to the Hill to share her reasons for attending yet another year of the NRHA Policy Institute.
Beth O'Connor: I grew up in rural America. The need to make sure people have the access they need absolutely fuels my fire. I make jokes that my job lets me yell at politicians, and how many jobs do you get to have where you do that?
Host: As leader of the Virginia delegation, this is O'Connor's 13th year taking on the battle for rural health. This time, her group is scheduled to meet with eleven different congressional offices to advocate for improvements on behalf of hospitals in her area.
Beth: We literally run down the marble hallways from one office to the next. Everybody gets a chance to talk about their little piece of the puzzle, in terms what's going on in health and healthcare in our rural communities, and how all of those different issues – whether it's training physicians, whether it's addressing the opiate crisis, whether it's oral healthcare – how all of that fits into the puzzle and how our members of Congress can help push those issues forward.
Host: One of the puzzle pieces and one of the biggest trends discussed at this year's conference is the continual closing of rural hospitals. Rural Virginia, for example, just lost two – one of them a critical access facility.
Beth: One of the things we're looking at nationwide is 40 percent of our small rural hospitals have a negative operating margin, so it makes it very difficult for them to keep continuing services for the community.
Host: With several meetings scattered throughout the day and sometimes with only a few minutes in between them, O'Connor brought eight fellow advocates with her group. One of those team members is Portia Brown, vice president of Page Memorial Hospital, who's attending Advocacy Day for the second time.
Portia Brown: It's a great way to have our voice heard and I'm finding that everyone is very receptive and wants to hear. They really want to hear about the rural voice and I know and feel that the NRHA is making such a difference because I can see that.
Host: Reflecting back on the past 13 years on the Hill, we asked O'Connor, "What does success look like for you and your delegation?"
Beth: Success is congressional aides writing down what they're telling us because it means we know they're processing the information and not just nodding at us.
Host: As a team is dividing and conquering, oftentimes advocates will end up meeting with staff members from various congressional offices rather than the senators themselves, and typically for no more than 15 minutes. O'Connor cautioned against any advocate feeling discouraged.
Beth: Sometimes, there's an attitude that if you're just meeting with a staffer and not the member of Congress, you're not being taken seriously or you're just being brushed off. People need to realize those staffers have a lot of influence and a lot of power, and if you can get your message across to that staffer, you've done your job.
Host: Now, with just two meetings left and on their feet all day, O'Connor and her team regroup to debrief and strategize at the end of a very long day but hopefully a successful day.
Beth: Looking around, we have some folks on the floor resting. Look at everybody. We've got smiles on their faces.
Host: Thanks for joining us along with NRHA for a quick glimpse at the Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, where America's rural health leaders connect with policymakers to tell their stories and champion change. For more stories like this, visit medhost.com/podcast. Thanks for listening.