Whatever the political climate on Capitol Hill, the commitment of psychiatrists to the rights of those with mental illness and the issues that affect their health and welfare should remain unwavering.
This was the key takeaway message from APA’s 2013 Advocacy Day event, held November 6 to 8 in Washington, D.C.
“Mental health issues know no partisan bounds,” says political adviser and commentator Paul Begala, emphasizing the need for politicians to listen to their constituents and focus on their needs.
The welcoming remarks of APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A, set the tone for the event’s opening day, emphasizing the need for psychiatrists to “get our views for our patients across” to those who develop and pass laws.
Picking up on Levin’s rallying cry, keynote speaker Paul Begala further roused the spirits and bolstered the determination of the packed room of psychiatrists with his humorous and incisive analysis of the divisive political landscape.
The former aide to President Clinton and CNN political commentator advised the Advocacy Day attendees to help the politicians with whom they would be meeting reconnect with their idealistic roots. Like psychiatrists, he said, most politicians pursued their line of work in an effort to help people.
John Wernert, M.D., board chair of APA’s political action committee (APAPAC), then offered some sobering statistics, noting that only $150,000 has been raised to date from APA members for the 2014 election cycle, compared with the $400,000 contributed to federal candidates and committees in 2012.
“Participation must increase to maintain our message on Capitol Hill,” Wernert emphasized. “If we don’t deliver our message, no one else will.”
From left: University of South Carolina (USC) assistant professor Eric Williams, M.D., and USC psychiatry residents Frank Clark, M.D., and Crystal Mehta, D.O., take notes at an Advocacy Day session on the importance of increasing public-health and research funding.
The morning’s final guest speaker, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), spoke of her personal commitment to mental health issues as a former state prosecutor and deputy attorney general, the wife of an Iraq war veteran, and cosponsor of initiatives such as the Mental Health First Aid Act and the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act.
She also stressed the importance of efforts to boost early intervention for those showing signs of mental illness, ensure appropriate school and community resources, eliminate stigma, and guarantee insurance coverage for preexisting conditions.
The remainder of the day was devoted to a series of sessions covering topics such as improving the quality of and access to care for veterans and American Indians, enhancing Medicaid reimbursement for psychiatric services, and ensuring that Congress does not define psychologists as physicians under Medicare.
By day’s end, the psychiatrist advocates were empowered and emboldened—prepared to meet with their legislators, share their ideas and insights, and champion the causes that affect their patients and their community.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) thanks psychiatrists for the care they provide to veterans. “I know you don’t have easy jobs, but you have very important jobs,” she said..
“APA’s Advocacy Day is the perfect example of APA membership value and importance,” stated Steve Koh, M.D., director of the Psychiatry Fellowship Program at the University of California, San Diego, chair of APA Assembly Committee on Early Career Psychiatrists, and member of APA’s Council on Advocacy and Government Relations. “It allows us to come together and experience how physicians united can make a difference in the legislative process.”
Patty Dickmann, M.D., chief resident of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry and an APA Leadership Fellow, added that the event offers “an incredible opportunity to network with residents, early career psychiatrists, and more seasoned psychiatrists from across the country.”
And for Matt McDougall, M.D., a second-year psychiatry resident at the University of South Dakota’s Sanford School of Medicine and the newly elected deputy representative of the Area 4 Council, Advocacy Day has both an immediate and a lasting impact.
“I’ve been to three Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C.,” he noted. “Two as a medical student with the American College of Physicians and one as a resident with APA. At each visit, I am amazed at how much weight a physician’s voice carries with members of Congress, particularly when that voice is armed with the stories of moments spent with patients. Our stories do make a difference, and every time I return home, I have a newfound hope that the legislative process will survive partisan gridlock—that our patients and our profession will live to see better days.” ■