Policy Perspectives

Grassroots Advocacy: "I Talk to Congress, But Are They Listening?"

Over the years, you have heard industry experts explain how to effectively educate members of Congress. For some, this is a fairly simple process. Keep the message crisp, stay on point (don't get down in the weeds), have a one-page position paper, and always ask for their support.

But have you ever gotten the feeling that the information you are discussing is of no interest to them? Or that the glazed look indicates maybe they don't understand the complexity of the issues affecting the industry? Maybe, just maybe you need to call in reinforcements.

Helping Stakeholders to Internalize Your Message

There is a huge misperception about the Medicare power mobility benefit. Most people have not internalized how this particular benefi t has transformed thousands of lives per year.

For example, did you know that an economics study states that there is a 3-to-1 return on investment back to the federal government when patients use power mobility?

When you explain how a power wheelchair is an alternative to an institutional setting, do you explain how the technology has advanced over the last 15 years? When you describe the patients you serve, do you describe the chronic conditions they suffer from? These are just a few of the messages that are important to tell Congress. But it's not just Congress that needs to understand it...it's the people in your community.

Your community must believe in the value-added services you provide. Build trust within the community, and they'll return the favor. How?

First, build a relationship with local business organizations. These organizations help establish credibility for your company. For instance, one of the best allies any company can have is the local chamber of commerce. In this financial environment, the chamber wants its local businesses to prosper. They can help promote your company to the community, give you opportunities to serve on chamber committees, and participate in local events. However, it is important that this organization not only understand your work and the industry you serve, but also the issues that your business faces.

With the advancements of technology, the power of the pen has taken on a whole new meaning. The local media can be a soundboard and messenger. Encourage them to write articles about issues that could affect your patients, your business, and the community. Op-eds make for a good communication tool to help the community understand legislative or regulatory changes (and you tell the story your way). Issue press releases about your company's achievements, awards, donations of medical products and services or new business partnerships. The more people understand your value, the more they can be a resource in the future.

Finally, invite members of Congress for a tour of your business. It is important that they appreciate not only the hard work that goes into caring for their constituents, but the costs associated with running your business. If you work with Medicare patients, explain the costs related to adhering to all Medicare requirements or what it takes to care for a patient in their home. Even though you may be hosting a federal official, you may consider inviting local and state officials to take the tour with you. One of your greatest assets is credibility. Local leaders will always plug your business as being a vital part of the community. This will help convince them to take an interest in the well-being of your company, as well as the industry.

Clearly, the more the public, business organizations, elected officials and the people that you serve learn about your operation and your values, the better positioned you will be to fend off attacks on the industry's character.

Engage a Silent Partner

Now that you have engaged the local media, your community and elected officials, there needs to be focus on your silent partner... your patient.

Seniors are a sure way to capture Congress' attention. Medicare patients rely on your business to receive the products and services that allow them to live independently at home. If there are legislative or regulatory changes on the horizon, it is imperative that you engage them. And members of Congress listen to our nation's aging population. Why? According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 61 percent of voters in the 2010 elections were over 50 years old.

One way to engage your patient is to create a grassroots newsletter campaign. Newsletters are an effective way to educate your patients on a variety of topics, including issues that could infl uence your ability to deliver products and services to their home. Moreover, newsletters can lead to “calls to action,” a valuable way to engage your patient.

How to Launch Your Own Newsletter

Getting started can be a fairly simple process. Here are some tips to create an effective grassroots newsletter for your company:

1. Focus on the issues at hand:
Whether it is competitive bidding, elimination of the fi rst-month purchase option, the medical device tax or power wheelchair audits, it is important to fi nd the right message that piques your patient's attention. Some of the issues suppliers face can be too complicated for the layperson to understand. Just like educating a member of Congress, you want to keep the message simple, yet crisp. What is it that you want them to know and why?

2. Create a plan of action:
Identify the best course of action. One of the most effective ways to get Congress to listen is to have your patients write a letter or call their member of Congress. Medicare benefi ciaries are very passionate. With the right information, they can truly set the tone. And never miss an opportunity to ask them to thank their member of Congress for everything they are doing to preserve their Medicare benefits.

3. Establish useful tips:
As a business owner, you care for your patients' well-being. That level of care undoubtedly goes beyond the products and services you provide.

You can provide added value to your patients by providing them with useful facts, figures and information. For example, provide them information about fall prevention and fall-related statistics, tips to avoid Medicare fraud, or focus on an awareness month (e.g., Arthritis Month or MS Awareness Month).

An effective newsletter can be an inexpensive, yet invaluable to your business. By setting aside a small budget for print and postage, you can educate your patients and members of Congress at the same time.

You may want to consider e-mailing the newsletter to your patient, if applicable. While e-mail is considered cost effective, it also allows the reader to advance the information to other interested parties. At the same time, post each newsletter on your company Web site. Computer usage among Americans 65 years and older has doubled in the past 10 years. There is a good chance that not only do you capture your patient's attention, but also the attention of outside readers, such as caregivers, at the same time.

Lastly, send a copy of the newsletter to the member of Congress' office. Members appreciate understanding the information being sent to their constituents, especially if you are asking your patient to offer thanks!

Remember, it all starts with you. The more effort you put into your business, the more successful you will be. Grassroots advocacy is no different.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Mark B. Leita is VP of external relations & government affairs for The SCOOTER Store. He leads the company's Congressional and gubernatorial lobbying efforts on federal legislative matters while managing the corporate political action committee and its activities in Washington, D.C. Leita is also responsible for directing national grassroots campaigns.

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