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Becoming an OT Advocate: How to Shape Policy While Juggling a Busy Caseload

OT and lawyer Veda Collmer shares several ways occupational therapists can advocate for their profession. Click here to learn more.

Veda Collmer
5 min read
April 30, 2015
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The signing of Hawaii’s occupational therapy licensure law marked the end of a 50-year crusade to introduce state-level OT regulation in all 50 states. Fifty years! I admire all of the OT leaders who had the tenacity to see this aspirational—and incredibly lengthy—project through.

The road to universal OT licensure—and the impact that fight has had on our profession—got me thinking about the role of advocacy in OT. Since the onset of healthcare reform in the early 1990s, we’ve seen the enactment of many laws that impacted our profession. I vividly recall the implementation of the therapy cap in 1997—a change that caused many OTs to lose their jobs. Laws that deinstitutionalized mental health patients also eliminated many OT jobs; thankfully, the passage of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) expanded job opportunities in our country’s public school systems. Later, the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—with its inclusion of rehabilitation and habilitation services as essential health benefits—allowed many OTs to hang up a private practice shingle. And just imagine: If all those years ago, OT leaders had not pursued their vision of state licensure, our profession would have been swallowed up by other credentialed healthcare providers.

That’s why, in my mind, advocacy is just as crucial to being an effective OT as is the delivery of quality patient care. It makes a career in OT more than a job. Our profession is subject to many laws and regulations, and the constantly changing legal landscape can dramatically impact our ability to help our patients. Through advocacy, though, we can play an active role in shaping the laws that govern us. And while you might not think you have the time—or the legislative know-how—to lend a hand in the OT advocacy arena, remember that advocacy comes in all shapes and sizes. If we unite and use our unique talents to our entire industry’s advantage, we can effectively advocate for ourselves and our profession. Below are some of the ways—both large and small—that we can impact OT.

1. Run for office.

Running for office is one of the most direct ways you can advocate for OT. However, it might not be a viable option for many OTs, as launching a campaign and serving in a government office is really only for those who have a fervor for politics. Still, it’s important to note that legislators come from a variety of backgrounds, and healthcare reform has drawn more healthcare providers into the political ring. Currently, there are several nurses and doctors serving in office. In New York, for example, occupational therapist Ted Kennedy is a state congressperson. So, if you love politics and public service, this could be a great way for you to advocate for OT. It guarantees that your voice will be heard—and you’ll bring a unique perspective to the formation of policies that affect OT.

2. Lobby for your profession.

Professional lobbyists stroll through the halls of the Capitol, schmoozing legislators and inviting them out for fancy dinners. But you don’t have to jet off to DC to be an effective lobbyist. In fact, you can make great strides on the lobbying front without even leaving your neighborhood—by writing to your representatives to explain why they should support pro-OT legislation, for example.

But what, exactly, does it mean to lobby? Lobbying includes any act in which a person attempts to influence a government official. But that doesn’t mean we have to wine and dine our legislators. In fact, one of the best ways to access our government representatives is to educate them on the issues that affect us. This can happen at the state or federal level. For example, the AOTA arranges an annual Capitol Hill Day, an event that gives OTs the opportunity to speak to Congress about pending legislation. Your state association may organize a similar grassroots effort at the state level. If you’re interested in getting involved, check out the resources available on the AOTA Congressional Affairs page. They’ll help you familiarize yourself with the issues and prepare your talking points.

If you want to take your lobbying efforts a step further, build a relationship with your elected officials; this is another great way to get your voice heard. If you’re not sure how to tackle this task, the AOTA has a great podcast series on becoming an OT advocate.

One easy way to lobby for the issues most important to you is to donate to the AOTA Political Action Committee (PAC) or your state’s PAC. These professional lobbyists fight for our profession on a daily basis, and your donations provide the resources they need to continue the fight.

In addition to providing you with a way of contributing to the OT advocacy movement, lobbying also gives you a sense of empowerment as you become an active part of the policymaking process. You’ll see the legislative process in action. You’ll meet the people you helped elect. You’ll connect with other OT grassroots lobbyists and become plugged into the OT advocacy community.

3. Join your associations.

The AOTA and state OT associations work hard to preserve our profession and ensure our patients can access the care they need. That’s why it’s critical that you join the AOTA and your state association. As a member, you’re keyed in to the OT community and all of the issues that affect us. Beyond allowing you to access many useful resources, your membership will give you the opportunity to develop a network of OTs who share your career interests and vision. And your membership doesn’t have to stop with your dues contribution; if you want to become a more active AOTA member, you can join a committee. State OT associations also are heavily involved in legislative activities and give you a means of engaging with the issues affecting OTs in your state.

4. Educate your colleagues.

If you love writing or speaking publicly, use those talents to educate your colleagues and policymakers about important OT issues. As I mentioned above, one way to do this is to write letters to your lawmakers about the bills affecting OT. At some point, you might actually have the opportunity to testify before your state legislature. Furthermore, you can use your power of the pen to submit articles on health policy to OT Practice and AJOT or to blog about the rulemaking process. Let’s face it: health laws—including Medicare and Medicaid regulations—are so complicated that most providers and patients do not really understand them. By increasing your knowledge of the law—using resources like the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund—you’ll put yourself in a position to educate your colleagues and patients and empower them to advocate for OT, too.

5. Know the issues.

Educating yourself about the issues affecting OT is one of the simplest ways to get involved in OT advocacy. Taking even a half-hour each week to review pending or passed legislation will help you provide better care for your patients. And typically, the AOTA and state OT associations provide summaries of the most pressing issues, so you don’t have to scour the web for information. One topic you should definitely start researching now, if you haven’t already done so: Alternative payment models. The move to value-based payment structures is on the horizon, and understanding how this trend will affect OT will help you document your treatment sessions in a way that ensures payment. It also is important to know your state’s practice act so you can ensure you’re practicing within the guidelines.

Advocacy has transformed our profession, and it’s vital to our future. As I explained in this post, there is an advocacy tactic to suit every practitioner’s interest and schedule. With another OT month behind us, hopefully your passion for your profession has been reinvigorated. So, then, how will you advocate for OT in 2015?


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