capitolhill

By Mark E. Smith

In my recent HME News column, I talked about how, unlike in the classic 1975 School House Rock song, a bill isn’t just a bill, rather, it’s about people, not paper, where getting legislation passed is about Capitol Hill face time, convincing our elected officials and their staffs to sign-on and support disability-related legislation is vital.

Indeed, I was privileged again this spring to be on Capitol Hill – as an advocate, not just a bill – summoning support for H.R. 942, the 2013 version of the Ensuring Access to Quality Complex Rehabilitation Act. We’ve introduced similar versions for several years now (much like in School House Rock, bills low on the priority get stuck on the steps of Capitol Hill, and fall off of the calendar, needing reintroduction). However, this year’s version, we believe, has a real chance, as face time and the quality of the proposed bill seem to have converged, where our elected officials have off-the-record at least noted it as a no-brainer, namely because it serves those with severe disabilities so well. See, H.R. 942 doesn’t just help protect complex rehab technology funding, but it eliminates the “in-home-use-only” rule; it allows those in long-term care facilities to qualify for vital technology like power wheelchairs; it sets standards so that technology is only prescribed to those with appropriate conditions; and, it further elevates the education and licensing of providers. Therefore, H.R.942 isn’t just about protecting funding, but also it’s about safeguarding consumers. And, it’s a cost-saver. For example, Medicare currently spends $1.6 billion annually on pressure sore treatments. H.R. 942 ensures access to both the right seating and clinical services to help prevent pressure sores. In this one area alone, a staggering amount of long-term healthcare costs could be saved, arguably hundreds of millions of dollars in the least.

But, again, H.R. 942 isn’t about paper, it’s about people. And, on the Hill with me, lobbying, were among the most amazing advocates, from a dozen or so of us who use complex rehabilitation technology, to clinicians like Gerry Dickerson, who have dedicated their lives to elevating – and, truly, creating – the field of applying complex rehabilitation technology to increase the quality of life for those of us with severe disabilities.

However, what struck me most about this spring’s lobbying effort, coordinated by NCART, was that we all are ordinary people doing the extraordinary – there’s no magic to making a difference, just dedication and tenacity. I mean, Mickae Lee and Jen Westerdahl are both single moms (and Mickae works two jobs!), yet they scheduled and coordinated hundreds of meetings for our lobbying day, literally staying up till all hours for weeks before the conference to make sure the schedule was complete. That’s the beauty of a democracy – anyone can help foster change with good ol’ effort.

I’ve been on the Hill quite a bit, more than maybe even I presumed, as in a few of my meetings, I was greeted with, “Mark, back for your semi-annual visit, are you?” See, the way it works is that anyone can make an appointment to meet with an elected official or staff (more commonly staff), and in our case with a proposed bill like H.R. 942, we have 15 minutes or so to make our pitch – and a lasting impression.

As a Pennsylvanian, that’s usually my lobbying territory, where I met with my two senators and four congressional staffs. Sometimes I’ll sneak in my old state of California, if needed. Nevertheless, six meetings in one day is a pretty intense schedule, where the size of Capitol Hill and its buildings makes it a race from one meeting to the next. I mean, when you have 15 minutes to get from the Rayburn building on one side, to the Dirksen building across the Hill, you put your power wheelchair in high gear!

I had the pleasure of tag-teaming with Matthew Clark, a wheelchair user from Philadelphia, and he’s emblematic of what I’d describe as the truest advocate – it all comes from the heart, just a guy making a difference. You’ve likely never heard of Matthew, as he’s not in the pages of New Mobility magazine, nor does he work in the mobility industry. He’s a photographer and filmmaker who told me, ”I do this [advocacy] because it’s the right thing to do.”

And, Matthew is astoundingly good at lobbying. Going into a congressional office with him was like walking onto a basketball court with Michael Jordan back in the day – you know you’re in the trenches with the best of the best. For starters, he has an I.Q. that has to be 140 or more, able to recite complex facts and figures by the dozens, making the H.R. 942 fact sheet obsolete. And, then, add to that his wit and charm, and he’s untouchable in meetings, winning everyone over with his eloquence and sincerity.

So, as lucky as I was to end up partnered with the best consumer advocate I’ve ever worked with, I wondered how he ended up on the Hill that day? The answer, $10. As he shared with me, long-haul buses travel between Philadelphia and Washington DC, and much like with airlines, the fares fluctuate, where he scored a $10 bus ticket down, but was admittedly disappointed that it was $19 to return home. Literally, Matthew was taking Capitol Hill by storm, advocating for millions of Americans with disabilities, on his own time and effort – all for $29.

Again, everyone lobbying on the Hill that day had his or her own remarkable story. Yet, when I think about Matthew Clark, he embodies advocacy at its best: One person, one voice serving the interests of millions. And, it proves such a valuable lesson to all of us. You don’t need fame, fortune, or formal training to help create legislative change – just the self-initiative to get involved.

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