Walking into the U.S. Capitol building evokes a unique sense of history and civic responsibility. And when the only other time you’ve made that walk was on a middle-school field trip, it also evokes a sense of awe and anxiety. This April, I was fortunate to attend the Academy’s 2013 Congressional Advocacy Day as an Advocacy Ambassador alongside hundreds of other resident and fellow ambassadors from across the country.
Yuna Rapoport, MD (left of center), and other Tennessee ophthalmologists speak with Rep. Phil Roe, MD, R-Tenn., during Congressional Advocacy Day.
A new day for advocacy
I first experienced advocacy on a state level, fighting the Tennessee Association of Optometric Physicians’ proposed S.B. 220/H.B. 555, which would have allowed optometrists to inject anesthesia into patients’ eyelids. Ultimately, the bill was defeated, thanks to strong support and testimonies from Vanderbilt University faculty and residents. Witnessing first hand how physicians can impact policy and protect patients’ interests both inspired and prepared me for what awaited at Congressional Advocacy Day.
Trading in our white coats for black suits, we descended upon Capitol Hill early in the morning. Our group of Tennessee ophthalmologists divided up the talking points before meeting with the staffer for Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. We discussed our views and concerns with several important pieces of legislation, such as Medicare payment reform and vision-research funding. As we discussed the details of the bills, it became increasingly clear how these laws would meaningfully impact both patients and physicians for years to come. In addition to these long-term issues, other bills had more immediate concerns for young ophthalmologists, such as the Truth in Healthcare Marketing Act, and the Access to Frontline Health Care Act, which I spoke about during our meetings. The goal of the latter bill is to provide partial loan forgiveness to new physicians who practice for two years in a federally designated Health Profession Shortage Area — a win-win situation for both patients and recent residency grads.
Listen and learn
Congressional Advocacy Day allowed an opportunity to not only provide our medical perspectives to lawmakers, but also listen to and learn from them. During our meetings in the House, it became immediately evident how building long-term relationships with staffers and politicians was invaluable, as Paul Sternberg, MD — Academy president, chairman of the Vanderbilt Eye Institute and a seasoned advocacy veteran — was able to quickly establish an open conversation based on his familiarity with individuals in each office.
Yuna Rapoport and Stephen Huddleston, Advocacy Ambassadors from Vanderbilt University and UT-Memphis, outside the office of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., during Congressional Advocacy Day.
We then scurried across the Mall to meet with staffers for Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. I enjoyed hearing their thoughts about future outcomes and appreciated how these meetings were also opportunities to gauge where the representative or senator stood on certain issues. The staffers had a wide range of knowledge and experience, from the fresh-faced staffer at their first job out of college to the staffer who was called a congressman’s “right and left hand”; however, the one thing they all shared in common was a genuine interest in and openness to hearing all of our issues. And after spending time with congressional staffers, I realized their roles were not entirely different from those of residents: they listen attentively to anybody who walks in the door, new members work diligently around the clock and none of their friends understand what they actually do every day.
While networking with lawmakers and their staff was a clear priority, the Mid-Year Forum also offered a unique and valuable opportunity to build relationships with other ophthalmologists. One of my personal highlights was meeting the other ambassadors from across the country. I reunited with residents whom I had known from the interview trail and from previous training, as we shared our experiences over cocktails and a sunset overlooking the Capitol building on the scenic rooftop of 101 Constitution.
Let your voice be heard
While the political process often feels like a distant black box, something reserved for textbooks and headlines, one thing was clear: the issues brought up during this year’s Congressional Advocacy Day are not going away in the near future. They will morph and develop, but they will affect us for the rest of our careers. In fact, they will affect the residents and the young ophthalmologists most.
It became obvious to me that my fellow co-residents at Vanderbilt University and across the country need to continue becoming involved so that the voice of our field in the future can be heard even louder than it was this year. I am very grateful to the Tennessee Academy of Ophthalmology for sponsoring me and to the Vanderbilt Eye Institute for allowing me to attend the Mid-Year Forum — a truly eye-opening event!
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About the author: Yuna Rapoport, MD, MPH, is currently a first-year resident at Vanderbilt Eye Institute. She completed medical school at Northwestern University.