State Beat: Stories from the Hill

Several hundred psychologists traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for expanded mental health care coverage during the Practice Leadership Conference.

By Hannah Calkins

Every March, psychology’s leaders from all over the United States and Canada convene in Washington, D.C., for the Practice Leadership Conference. On the final day of the conference — after three days of rigorous dialogue, education and advocacy training — delegates from each state go to Capitol Hill to lobby their senators and representatives on behalf of their patients and profession.

This year, Hill Visit day fell on March 7. It turned out to be a fortuitous day for psychologists to advocate for mental health coverage: Just the night before, House Republicans released their plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), sending politicians and staffers all over the Hill into frenzied uncertainty. The psychologist advocates were not demoralized by these developments, but instead energized, focused and optimistic.

Rhode Island delegation meeting with Sen. Whitehouse. (From left) Wendy Plante, PhD, Jonathan Gershon, PhD, Peter Oppenheimer, PhD, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.  “Today is a great day to be here. There is a void that is being created by changes to the health care law, and it’s important that mental health services get        pulled into the vacuum that is created by that void,” said Deborah Okon, PhD, who was waiting with her colleagues from the New Mexico Psychological  Association (NMPA) for a meeting with a staff member from the office of Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.

 Okon, who has served as a federal advocacy coordinator — a psychologist appointed by their state psychological association to organize grassroots advocacy  efforts — for NMPA for nine years, said that she and her colleagues stayed up late studying the Republicans’ bill. Grisham’s staff member was grateful for this  preparation during their meeting, as he hadn’t yet read the whole bill.

 Okon raised her concerns to the staffer, noting that the bill stipulates that coverage for mental health and substance abuse services would be optional. “We    think funds for those services should be mandatory,” Okon told him.

On the other side of the Capitol, delegates from the Rhode Island Psychological Association (RIPA) were shuttled from an antechamber outside a Senate judiciary confirmation hearing and into a busy hallway to meet with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

“We’ve found our congressional delegation from Rhode Island to be very receptive to our concerns,” said Wendy Plante, PhD, RIPA’s federal advocacy coordinator, after the meeting. “They appreciate hearing our stories from the state, especially in this tough political climate.”

 

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