As we head into July, we anticipate the upcoming weeks will be busy as Congress works to tie up pressing legislative business before adjourning for the annual August congressional recess. The Academy will be on the Hill during this energetic time to push forward as many of our legislative priorities as possible before members of Congress return to their home districts for the month of August.
When Congress is in session, Academy members serve as an integral part of the organization’s Capitol Hill efforts. In addition to Academy members reaching out to their members of Congress with e-mails, letters, and phone calls, we have already seen successful Capitol Hill lobby days from The Ohio State University, Northeast Ohio AuD Consortium, Nova Southeastern University, and the Student Academy of Audiology. We have also hosted individual members for days on Capitol Hill, including visits by Academy leadership and advocacy committee members, to help effectively lobby for key Academy priorities like the reauthorization of the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Act, the Access to Frontline Health Care Act, and to bring the audiology perspective to discussions on the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act.
During the August congressional recess, the Academy must shift its strategy for communicating with members of Congress and their staff to take advantage of the unique engagement opportunities presented at this time. Many members of Congress hold town halls, “tele” town halls, fundraisers, and make other public appearances during recess. Members of Congress also may be holding office hours at their district offices. We encourage Academy members to use these opportunities and schedule a district meeting as a way to support the advocacy efforts underway in Washington. Proactively reaching out to your local congressional office during these times can help ensure that issues important to audiologists remain at the forefront of your elected officials’ minds.
These personal conversations and contacts made in members of Congress’ home districts can be valuable when the members return to Washington, DC, in September. Most often, members of Congress will hear from interest groups and lobbyists on pressing issues, but the value of an actual constituent conversation carries the most weight in a Representative or Senator’s decision on a specific issue. In fact, a 2014 study from the Congressional Management Foundation showed that 94 percent of congressional staffers viewed a constituent visit to their boss’s district office as having “some” or “a lot” of influence on undecided lawmakers. Use the August recess as an opportunity to engage with your elected officials and make an impact on policy decisions taking shape in Washington.
One legislative priority that the Academy has been working to advance is the Access to Frontline Care Act (H.R. 2042). The Academy hears regularly from both audiology students and practicing audiologists about the burden that student loans impose throughout their careers. The Access to Frontline Health Care Act, introduced by Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA), will authorize the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a Frontline Providers Loan Repayment Program under which HHS would make student loan repayments for certain health professionals, including audiologists, who practice in an area specifically defined by the federal government as having a shortage of health practitioners or having a shortage of frontline care services.
In a recent study conducted by Patricia Gaffney, AuD, it was revealed that while salaries for audiologists have increased by approximately 47 percent since 2005, the cost of the degree has risen by nearly 140 percent, creating a significant disparity between educational debt and salary. The Access to Frontline Health Care Act will help to address this disparity and the Academy strongly supports this proposal. In fact, Dr. Gaffney’s Nova Southeastern students lobbied in favor of this specific bill when they met with their members of Congress on May 12 in Washington, DC.
Another issue that the Academy supports is an increase in patients’ access to telehealth audiology services. Congress is interested in expanding telehealth opportunities in many areas and bills have been introduced which would do just that. Overall, access to quality health care remains a challenge for many Americans and Congress is looking for ways to help fix this accessibility problem. Existing and improving technologies make telehealth a realistic option moving forward. As the country continues to age, the demand for audiological services will continue to increase. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2024, the audiology profession will grow by 29 percent, much faster than the average profession. Increasing opportunities for telehealth services would positively impact current and future audiologists’ ability to reach this growing demographic in need of their care. Currently, there are several bills which ease restrictions on telehealth in various ways. The Academy is exploring options and will continue to reach out to members of Congress to provide assistance on this.
The Academy also remains actively engaged with the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act. In conversations with leading Food and Drug Administration officials, it was relayed that the FDA is planning to create a category of hearing aids that would be for sale over-the-counter, with or without explicit congressional authorization. The Academy has been carefully working with members of Congress to educate them on the role of the audiologist in the application of hearing health care and on what factors need to be considered once this new category is created. The Academy is currently securing congressional support for the regulatory battles ahead at the FDA. Significant concerns remain over what quality devices will be permitted to be sold over-the-counter, what information will be on the labels, and how safety measures will be ensured moving forward.
On a final note, please consider joining the Academy’s Grassroots Advocacy Network. It is an excellent way to stay informed and get involved in these legislative initiatives. If you are interested in signing up, please contact me, Adam Finkel, the Academy’s associate director of government relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org. In order to address all of the significant and important issues that Academy members face on a daily basis, a comprehensive advocacy strategy must be pursued. Right now, there is a lot of noise in Washington about big-picture items, be it health care reform, immigration reform, tax reform, or dozens of others. By directly contacting your members of Congress as a constituent, it helps ensure that your priorities remain their priorities throughout the year.