Essential Advocacy at State Leadership Conference (SLC)

MPA members received the APA Division 31 APAGS Award for an Outstanding State, Provincial, or Territorial Association of the Year at the APA State Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C. Front row, from left to right: BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, Cynthia (C.J.) Swanlund, Robin McLeod, Sy Gross.  Back row, from left to right: Matthew Syzdek, Daniel Kessler, Yasmine Moideen, Bruce Bobbitt and Willie Garrett.

Each year, for the past thirty-some years, the American Psychological Association (APA) has organized a conference in Washington D.C. in early March to emphasize the importance of advocacy by and on behalf of psychologists regarding important Federal legislation that benefits the persons whom we serve.  The responsibility for this conference shifted to American Psychological Association Practice Organization (APAPO) as a C-6 structure to allow more vigorous activity seeking legislation.  Each State Psychological Association and many Divisions of APA send representatives, about 500, for an intense four days starting at 8 a.m. and going to about 6:30 p.m. to train for a visit to Capitol Hill on the last day of the conference. This means visiting the offices of U.S. Senators and Representatives about specific Federal legislation to explain how psychologists serve their constituents. It requires considerable walking within the three buildings of the House of Representatives and a hike to the Senate office building.  These visits need to be scheduled prior to the conference and there is competition from hundreds of other groups who travel to D.C. representing their interest focus.  

Each office has a scheduler who has to juggle the many requests constantly flowing in. It helps to get to know the scheduler from year to year but they often change and the process to develop a relationship begins anew. Communication initially is by completing an email request form for each office and then the repeat telephone calls while juggling our schedule to cover as many offices as possible. Minnesota has two Senators and eight Representatives and each visit averages 20-30 minutes.  Sometimes it is not possible to meet with every office.  There are delays that further complicate coverage since staff scheduled to meet with us may be called elsewhere by the Senator or Representative.  Some visits take place with the elected official, but since they are often in hearings, voting sessions and other obligations, we typically meet with the Legislative Aide or Health Aide who are essential to the Senator or Representative, and to us.  We seek to develop a congenial and supportive connection with staff who are very important to explain to their Senator or Representative about a given legislative item for which we are requesting positive support such as to be a cosponsor and vote for the item in Congress. 

This year we had 10 delegates from the Minnesota Psychological Association whereas in prior years it has been four or five. All of us visited at the office of our Senators-Senator Amy Klobuchar and Senator Al Franken. We divided the 10 of us into two teams to visit with our Representatives, and we still were able to visit only six of the eight Representatives.  Of the 10 of us, there was mixed experience, so it was relevant to match newcomers with experienced participants. We also had to make sure constituents of an official visited his or her office. Our visits were between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. since we were returning in early evening to Minnesota.  After each visit, one of us completed a brief survey form that gives APAPO a sense of the position of the official on the legislative item. We ask directly (The Ask) about support; sometimes it is positive but it can be neutral or negative at this point.  At each office, we leave a folder of fact sheets that APAPO has produced to further assist the office to understand the item. In the meetings we seek to combine both relevant detail, but not too much, with brief real life stories or examples from our practice to have the office recognize the importance of the legislation to the people we serve.  Sometimes a partisan political viewpoint is mentioned by the office staff; we do not argue or dispute what may be a biased interpretation, but gently try to give an alternative or say nothing. Regardless how one believes about a political party or position, we are there to make friends and offer useful information about the importance of psychologists to meet the needs of citizens in their district.

This year APAPO focused on two items of legislation (some years we have four items): Medicare Mental Health Access Act (H.R. 4277, S. 2597); and, Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646, S. 1945).

APAPO provides detailed materials to learn the basics and a “palm card,” which is a 3.5 x 4.5 pre-printed card to carry listing key items as reminder cues. The first item seeks to have psychologists to be classified in Medicare as “physician” as are dentists, optometrists, chiropractors, and podiatrists, which would remove unnecessary physician oversight requirements for psychologists. This would enhance service delivery to needy Medicare recipients in certain settings. It does not change the scope of practice of psychologists as defined by each state’s licensing laws.  The second legislation authored by Rep. Tim Murphy, a psychologist in Congress from Pennsylvania and, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson from Texas, seeks bipartisan consensus mental health reform. It is a multi-focus Act and covers direct services, professional education, and grants. It is expected that additional negotiation of this proposed legislation will take place in Congress to incorporate other mental health bills.

The Minnesota Psychological Association was represented by: Robin McLeod, Ph.D., L.P., MPA President; Scott Palmer, Ph.D., L.P., Past-President; Steve Girardeau, Psy.D., L.P., President-Elect; Daniel Kessler, Psy.D., L.P., Director of Professional Affairs; Willie Garrett, M.S., L.P, Ed.D., Diversity Delegate; Yasmine Moideen, Ph.D., L.P., Diversity Delegate; Matthew Syzdek, Ph.D., L.P., Early Career Psychologist; Cynthia Swanlund, APAGS; and Sy Gross, Ph.D., L.P., Federal Advocacy Coordinator. Two other MPA  members were at this meeting: BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, Ph.D., L.P., APA Council of Representatives, who visited at the offices of our two Senators, and Bruce Bobbitt, Ph.D., L.P., MPA Treasurer, and VP at Optum,  who presented on a panel relating to insurers. 

MPA received a prestigious award:  The APAGS AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING STATE, PROVINCIAL OR TERRITORIAL PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSICIATION OF THE YEAR.  This recognized the work of Cynthia Swanlund and our Association to promote student participation. Cynthia, who will be starting her internship in Washington State, has been an active student leader and member on the MPA  Governing Council for two years. This award brings a check for $1,500 to MPA (APAGS is the National American Psychological Association of Graduate Students). 

While the SLC involves considerable time and energy by the participants, there is a lot of opportunity for bonding and team building in the evening with dinner enjoyed by our MPA representatives in spectacular restaurants carefully selected by Scott Palmer.  Some daytime touring happens and it was a pleasure to provide Cynthia Swanlund, our APAGS winner, with a four mile walking tour of DC for her first visit.  At SLC, one can network with others from the 500 from different states - it is a networking paradise - and gain very useful ideas and friendships. 

Now that you have learned about advocacy at SLC, here is “The ASK” for Minnesota psychologists. If you would like to be a Key Contact to your U.S. Representative, particularly if you live in Greater Minnesota, please contact Sy Gross ([email protected]).  A Key Contact develops a relationship with your Representative and staff in local Minnesota offices so you can help promote Federal legislation that is beneficial to psychology and the people we serve.  This grass roots advocacy helps all of us and you will become an expert for the office of your Representative. Not everyone has the temperament to do tactful advocacy, e.g., no whining.  Give it a try and you may get a four mile walking tour of DC.     

Sy Gross, Ph.D., L.P., is the Current Federal Advocacy Coordinator for MPA for the past 12 years, a previous MPA President, and on the Council of Representatives for APA.  His doctoral degree was received from the University of Minnesota Clinical Psychology program and he currently does clinical work at Hennepin County Mental Health Center.  His specialization is with persons who are homeless.


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