The current pandemic has upended virtually all aspects of our lives: work, interaction with family and friends, schooling, travel, and finances. However, Congress and federal and state agencies have continued working under these extraordinary conditions to respond to the myriad of financial and health-care-related crises created by COVID-19.
The business of advocacy is typically a hands-on affair—characterized by in-person meetings with members of Congress and staff, fundraisers, coalition meetings, and travel to conferences and meetings. With the advent of COVID-19, these face-to-face activities came to a screeching halt. The disruption of these “typical” advocacy activities came at a time when it was more critical than ever before for the Academy, other associations, and industries to reach their elected officials and policy makers to express their concerns and share their ideas on how to address the health-care crisis. Our patients need access to non-COVID-19, yet critical, health-care services.
Lobbying by Zoom
Under usual circumstances, associations or other interest groups make donations from their political action committee (PAC) to various members of Congress or their campaigns and are able to meet with the members to gain actual “face time” to talk about issues of concern or to educate the members about their profession.
Believe it or not, even these fundraisers have shifted to Zoom events. The Academy has participated in several of them and staff have been able to express concerns directly to lawmakers, including Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Minority Leader.
Chasing the Wave of Telehealth
The pandemic has changed the health-care delivery landscape by shifting many non-COVID-19-related health-care services to a virtual format. To keep pace with this shift, most private insurers, as well as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), began making rapid changes to their previously limited policies regarding the provision of services via telehealth.
The Academy engaged with CMS staff via written correspondence, telephone calls, and responses to CMS requests for provider feedback. As a result, audiologists were added to the list of providers able to temporarily provide services via telehealth with Medicare. While the services allowed to be provided, albeit temporarily, were limited, this was a critical “foot in the door,” setting the stage for the future.
Before the pandemic hit, the Academy’s top legislative priority was the Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act (H.R. 4056/S.2446), the “joint audiology bill” supported by the Academy, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), and the Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA). This legislation, which would remove the physician-order requirement, grant audiologists “practitioner” status, and allow audiologists to bill for covered Medicare services has remained an area of critical focus even throughout the pandemic.
The Academy, along with ASHA and ADA, has been in regular contact with the principal sponsors of the joint audiology bill—Representatives Tom Rice (R-SC) and Matt Cartwright (D-PA) and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rand Paul (R-KY)—to keep making the case to the House and Senate leadership that the provisions of the legislation—to remove barriers to beneficiary access to critical hearing and balance services. These services are essential to seniors, particularly at this time when many assisted-living centers and facilities are shut off from the outside world. This situation makes the ability of these seniors to communicate effectively even more important to stave off feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Managing the Deluge of Information
News stories about COVID-19 and its wide-ranging effects have dominated every news cycle since last spring. Early in the crisis, the Academy sensed the need to “curate” for its members the news stories and other information released by federal and state agencies that were most relevant to audiologists as health-care providers, small business owners, and as potential patients. Each Friday, the Academy has been sending out a COVID-19 Week in Review newsletter highlighting emerging resources and actionable news items.
Advocacy: Critical in a Crisis
Even as the typical avenues of advocacy have been interrupted, the need for effective advocacy during a crisis has remained. The Academy advocacy-related member committees (the Government Relations Committee (GRC), the State Relations Committee (SRC), the PAC Advisory Board, the Coding and Reimbursement Committee, and the Practice Policy Advisory Council (PPAC) are serving as invaluable resources to help guide the Academy through these uncharted waters to further the legislative priorities of the Academy and of the profession.
Each individual member can advance the advocacy goals of the Academy. Donations to the Academy PAC facilitate work with members of Congress. In addition, members can access the Academy Legislative Action Center to contact their elected representatives on issues of importance to the profession. In addition, engagement at the state and local government level or with state audiology academies dovetails with federal advocacy efforts and raises public awareness of the importance of audiology.