Doctor Barrett Goes to Washington

Just when I think my life can’t get any crazier, something else unexpected happens. I have been able to do some pretty remarkable things, but going to Washington DC to talk to congressional staffers was something I did not anticipate.


I just got back from what was definitely eye-opening trip to our nation's capital. I was asked by my medical group to join a briefing on proposed cuts to Medicare Avantage, a part of MediCare that is both popular and successful, especially in Southern California. About 75 congressional staff members attended the briefing. The remainder of my one day in DC involved meetings with staff of individual members of the House of Representatives where the same message was shared. I am not sure how much education the staffers received but I learned a lot in one day in DC. Here are some of my observations.

-          Our nation is run by some very young people. Almost everyone at the briefing and all of the staffers with whom we spoke directly were under the age of 30. I hope it is not discriminatory to say I wish those who were advising our leaders possessed a little more life experience!

-          Staffers don’t make very much (many are in the $30-$40,000 a year range) and as a result most don’t stay in their positions for very long (average is about 18 months). So our representatives are being advised by people who are both very young and very inexperienced. Not typically a desired combination.

-          If you are talking to staffers you need to talk fast and stay on message. I was flown to DC to speak for a total of about 30 minutes. I gave a 5 minute presentation at the briefing and then briefly answered three questions. My share in each the smaller meetings was 3-5 minutes of the total of 15 minutes we were allotted. 

-          We are a sound bite nation. Staffers are bombarded with information (about which they take notes on steno pads) if you want them to remember something it needs to be short and it needs to be impactful. I know I nailed the short part but have no way of knowing what the impact was.

-          Congressional staffs are rather large. Each member can hire up to 18 people. Basic math tells you that after you deduct time spent by representatives in meetings and in session there is not a lot of time left to spend with staff, all the more reason to make your points succinctly. I was left wondering how informed our representatives are about the legislation they vote on.

-          Many staffers, due to turnover and age, are not well versed on the subjects they are discussing. Some of the conversations we had were very basic. After the third meeting one of my colleagues started asking, “Do you know much about the type of Medicare plan we are discussing?” In some of cases the answer was “Not really.”

It was a whirlwind day and I was told that I performed admirably. (If there is one thing I am good at it is talking!) I got on the plane home a mere 26 hours after I arrived with a sense of exhilaration and pride. A few days later I am more reflective and I wonder about our effectiveness. We did our jobs well and delivered our message but there are so many voices and so many messages being delivered every day that there is the fear that ours may be forgotten or may fade overtime.

While it may be that our impact will be proven minor in the grand scheme of healthcare legislation I do not want to leave the impression that our trip was not important or significant. We definitely added to the discussion and enhanced the knowledge base of those who advise and educate representatives. But there was something else we accomplished. The three of us that traveled together from California did something amazing on Friday. We participated. We spoke out. We engaged in the process and tried to make a difference. We went not for ourselves but for the people entrusted to our care, for doctors and their patients and for a health system and its employees, all of whom work together to provide care to people who truly need it.

Which may be the most important thing I accomplished. I left the sidelines and got into the game. I didn’t score a touchdown or make a game-saving tackle but for once in my life, I played. Which is a pretty cool thing.

-          Bart

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