"Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport": The Top 5 Things I Learned at ASRM's 2015 Advocacy Academy

By Griffin Jones

“This ban on IVF coverage for our nation’s vets is antiquated and unconscionable, it is past time for it to be lifted.'--Owen Davis MD, President of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM).

Most of the attendees of ASRM's first ever Advocacy Academy. Photo taken by Suzan Henderson, @suzanhenderson. 

Most of the attendees of ASRM's first ever Advocacy Academy. Photo taken by Suzan Henderson, @suzanhenderson. 

ASRM held its first ever Advocacy Academy in Washington, D.C. on December 9th and 10th, 2015. About 30 ASRM members met to learn more about advocacy at the state and federal levels, for better legislation on reproductive care. Special focus was paid to Congress's current ban on IVF for veterans, and the pending pieces of legislation that would provide that care to our vets. On Capitol Hill, we met with the offices of our individual members. Being new to advocacy in this way, these are the five most valuable things I learned from ASRM's advocacy workshop.

  1. The ban on IVF for veterans is just bad legislation. Currently, through the Department of Defense (DOD), some IVF coverage is available for active service members who were injured or wounded in the line of duty. When those same service members are medically discharged from the military, they are not afforded the same coverage as veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Can we really expect service members to be thinking about their fertility at their time of discharge? Will we not give them any time to build a family? As it was explained in the workshop, only twenty service members have been able to take advantage of IVF under the existing DOD coverage.
  2. Congressional staffers will meet with you. I found this to be very surprising and encouraging. ASRM had scheduled meetings for us with the offices of our Representatives and Senators. Each office has a staffer that's responsible for veterans affairs issues and healthcare issues. Often, it is the same person. These staffers advise the legislator on bills that have been brought to their attention. They are tasked with investigating the background, status, and content of the bill. Part of their investigation involves gauging feedback from constituents. We met with our congressional offices as constituents voicing our stance on the IVF for veterans issue, politely asking for the favor of the legislator's co-sponsorship of the bill(s). What surprised me further, were the impromptu meetings that I was granted. I stepped into seven additional congressional offices, and staffers from four different New York Representatives took a few minutes to meet with me. 
  3. Allies are necessary. No matter the issue, it is important to find common interests who benefit from your desired goal. Lorri Unumb is the vice president of state government affairs at Autism Speaks, the national advocacy organization for autism. Lorri spoke to our group about how to impact changes in legislation at the state level. Lorri talked about the importance of local constituents asking their legislator for the favor of co-sponsoring the piece of legislation that they want to advance. It's important to pay attention to other patient advocacy groups and medical societies to learn how we can improve access to reproductive health.
  4. Educate the press. Reporters, journalists, and bloggers often cover multiple subject areas. Healthcare may not be their area of expertise. Reproductive health is almost certainly not their area of expertise. Your interviewer's familiarity with reproductive health may only extend to high profile cases such as California's "Octomom," and celebrity legal disputes like the one involving Modern Family's Sofia Vegara. In fact, from the experience of many of the panelists at the workshop, it's often after headlines like these that the media are most interested in talking to reproductive endocrinologists (RE). Carol Blymire of Blymire Communications advised being friendly and helpful to journalists. Connect them with other sources of information, educate them on the field, and thank them for their interest. Dr. Richard Paulson, president-elect of ASRM, advises setting a time-limit, twenty minutes, for the interview.
  5. Repetition is key. It is important to be repetitive. Repeating your message has importance. This is true for both the media and for lawmakers. As U.S. Department of Labor Secretary, Thomas Perez, stated in his keynote address on the first day of the academy, "Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires continuous participation." Two of the legislative staffers that I met with told me that they had seen one of the IVF for veterans bills before. They had simply forgotten about it. It sounded like their legislators had never seen it. Senators and Representatives see more bills and proposals for legislation than they can possibly keep track of. It is helpful to be reminded of what is important to the constituents, and on what they should spend their consideration. The staff members thanked me for bringing the bill back to their attention.

ASRM has announced that they will hold another Advocacy Academy in late 2016 or early 2017. I encourage physicians and practice managers to attend, because laws regarding public health will be passed with or without your input. It is important for legislators to consider the expertise of health professionals in the field. I hope that by the next workshop, veterans of the United States Armed Forces will have the access to reproductive technology that they've earned.