The American Counseling Association Office of Public Policy and Legislation held its 2006 Legislative Institute in Washington, D.C., from Feb. 26-28. More than 50 ACA members from across the nation attended workshops and briefings on various aspects of legislative advocacy and public policy. As part of the institute, counselors also toured the U.S. Capitol building and made lobbying visits to their respective senators and representatives.
Legislative Institute sessions instructed attendees on the basics of the policymaking process and how to engage in state and federal advocacy. In addition, attendees took part in role-playing exercises that prepared them to conduct lobbying visits. Other sessions covered grant writing, media relations and how counselors can remain active as advocates after returning home. The institute also provided lobbying information on issues of concern to school counselors, rehabilitation counselors and mental health counselors.
“The importance of what professional counselors can do to impact public policy is hard to overstate in today’s policymaking environment,” said ACA Executive Director Richard Yep. “I was extremely pleased to see such a hard-working and dedicated group of professional counselors come to Washington.”
When participants visited their representatives’ and senators’ offices on Capitol Hill on the last day of the Legislative Institute, they lobbied on specific issues: Medicare coverage of licensed professional counselors, recognition of LPCs under TRICARE and other Department of Defense programs, funding for the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program and reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act.
Bruce Dickinson, a retired LPC from Nebraska, said the practice lobbying sessions were especially helpful in preparing him to meet with Rep. Jeff Fortenberry to discuss Medicare issues. First-time attendee Deborah Braboy, a licensed associate counselor from Oklahoma, came away from the Legislative Institute with a new appreciation of the governmental process. “It’s vitally important for counselors to attend these types of opportunities, study the issues and speak to members of Congress to shed some light on mental health concerns and the population that we serve,” she said.
Braboy said she had an “awesome” visit with Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.). “He honestly gave me his undivided attention,” Braboy said. “He was attentive and asked some very pertinent questions. We talked about the TRICARE issue before the House right now, and he agreed to co-sponsor the bill. In fact, he said he would contact the appropriate offices and add his name to the bill that day.”
ACA Public Policy Director Scott Barstow said the association hosts the annual Legislative Institute as a way to encourage counselors to participate in the legislative process and become a voice for the profession on Capitol Hill. He noted that legislators are often more willing to listen to a counselor from their own state or district than to a paid lobbyist.
“The single biggest factor in getting a member of Congress or a state legislature to do something on a given issue is constituent contact,” Barstow said. “We need to get as many counselors as possible up to Capitol Hill making congressional office visits on a regular basis. We also need to get as many counselors as possible motivated to call, write and visit their legislators once they get back home. We can never have too many counselors doing this, and the more people we can train, the better.”
The award goes to …
Each year during the Legislative Institute, ACA recognizes a member of Congress who has demonstrated leadership on behalf of the counseling profession. This year, the Federal Legislative Service Award was presented to Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) for his hard work and leadership in support of establishing independent practice authority for licensed professional counselors under the TRICARE program.
In March 2005, Hayes introduced the TRICARE Mental Health Services Enhancement Act (H.R. 1358) in an effort to provide military personnel and their families easier and faster access to qualified mental health professionals. There is a significant need for improved access to mental health services for this population, but federal law still requires licensed professional counselors to see TRICARE beneficiaries only under physician referral and supervision.
“ACA is very grateful for Rep. Hayes’ successful work in gaining House passage of the language in H.R. 1358 within the Fiscal Year 2006 defense authorization bill,” said Yep, who presented the award to Hayes. “Mental health services for those in uniform and their dependents is not a Republican issue, and it’s not a Democratic issue — it’s a people issue. We are pleased to honor Rep. Hayes with our highest public policy commendation.”
Upon receiving the award, Hayes said, “I am honored to be recognized by the American Counseling Association, but the people we should really honor are our hard-working men and women in uniform. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I believe it is necessary to change our existing TRICARE system to include unfettered access by our soldiers and their families to licensed mental health counselors. Exposure to the type of prolonged stress our soldiers face in Iraq requires Congress to make it easier for soldiers to receive the mental health care they may need.”
Hayes is currently serving his fourth term in Congress and represents North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District. He is a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Military Personnel. Continuing the fight
Although the Legislative Institute’s attendees have returned home, their work is far from over. They are continuing their advocacy efforts on behalf of the counseling profession with calls, letters and e-mails to their state leaders. ACA staff members are coordinating follow-up contacts to the congressional offices visited by Legislative Institute attendees.
“Ultimately, all members of Congress should know a counselor in their community who can tell them about the profession’s policy needs,” Barstow said. “Ongoing contact with congressional offices by Legislative Institute attendees — and other counselors — is the surest way of keeping counseling issues firmly on their radar screen. All counselors should view it as both their right and their duty to regularly contact their elected officials.”
One of the reasons this is so important is that anecdotal information on how government policies affect their constituents is invaluable to legislators. Consequently, Brian Altman of ACA’s Public Policy and Legislation staff is encouraging ACA members to play a role in advocacy efforts by sending him personal stories about why Medicare reimbursement for LPCs is so important. “It was wonderful for our members to be able to go up to Capitol Hill,” he said, “but this is another way that ACA members can make our voices heard. I’m asking for members to provide me with quotes and anecdotes regarding why LPCs need Medicare reimbursement. We want to be able to share these with staff members on the Hill.”
He continued, “Have counselors had to reject clients because they can’t bill Medicare and they had no other way to pay? Are clients who once were seeing a counselor through private health insurance now paying completely out of pocket because they’re now Medicare beneficiaries? Have counselors tried to bill indirectly through the ’incident to’ clause and been unable to find a direct billing provider willing to take them on as an employee? We need to hear these stories.”
Altman requests that ACA members make their stories as concise as possible. “Capitol Hill staff have very little time, so I will have to boil down all the stories into a two-page document,” he explained. “Thus, if you can provide me a paragraph that you think will have the most personal and emotional impact, that would be great.”
Submission can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org and should include “Medicare Story” in the subject line.
Announcements regarding next year’s ACA Legislative Institute will come out this summer and fall. Counselors interested in attending or learning more about legislative advocacy may contact ACA’s Christie Lum at email@example.com or by calling 800.347.6647 ext. 354.