APTA Federal Advocacy Forum: An Inside Look
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
I'm going to be honest, when I registered to attend the 2019 APTA Federal Advocacy Forum (FAF) in Washington, DC, I was incredibly hesitant.
I thought to myself, did I just register for a 3-day event of boring discussions about complicated policy and legal issues surrounding physical therapy? Did I just sign up to miss 2 days of classes to get the door slammed in my face by legislators? Can a student even benefit from an event like this?
Well, I'm here to tell you about how this event gave me perspectives, contacts, and knowledge that are crucial to my future growth within this profession.
I was up at 4:00 am on a Sunday to catch my flight at St Louis Lambert International Airport. Groggy and slow-moving, I spent the flight finishing the book Normal by Amy Bloom that I chose to read for a book report for class. Great book, but not the purpose of this post.
After we touched down in our nation's capital, I waited patiently for my fellow Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Program in Physical Therapy (WUPT), colleague Caleb to arrive and we were off to check into our Airbnb. Our rental neighbored Union Station for quick, convenient access to and from the forum. Following a brutal reminder of how to tie a tie, we were off to the J.W. Marriott Hotel for the opening festivities.
A large ballroom with more than a few round tables greeted us as we walked in. We were unfashionably early, but I decided to sit next to 2 students from Wisconsin to chat. It was their first time attending FAF as well, which reassured me that I was not alone in my inexperience.
Once everybody else settled in, we listened to APTA's Public Affairs staff team discuss the hot topics and updates surrounding public policy in physical therapy. After this somewhat quick summary of what we would be learning more about in the coming days, I went across the hall to attend the Welcome Reception. Here is where I began meeting fellow students, clinicians, and other professionals who made this conference so special. Day 1 was in the books and I was excited for what was next to come.
The next day was filled with informative speakers, inspiring conversations, and just some good old-fashioned fun. After breakfast we were ready for our first keynote speaker, Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, elections analyst for Roll Call, and political analyst for CNN. Best thing about him for an event like FAF? He was completely nonpartisan and stated the facts. He was funny, engaging, relatable, and neutral. He spoke on the current political climate in Washington, the states of both the Republican and Democrat parties, and what he believes the 2020 presidential election is going to look like. It was a fantastic talk and he kept a room full of tired people completely engaged.
Following breakfast, it was time for the first breakout session where we had the choice to attend 1 of 3 informational sessions. To be honest, the regulatory affairs session I attended was a little over my head, as I have not taken courses in my curriculum that cover the topics that were discussed, but I still learned a thing or two.
After lunch our keynote speaker, Sarah Kliff, senior policy correspondent for Vox.com, did an excellent job discussing the Affordable Care Act, personal patient stories, current health care policy being presented in Washington, and the future of health care in America. Sarah was intelligent, honest, and very informative. Another great experience, and at this point I had not even been in DC for 24 hours.
After a lunch break I got to meet some rather awesome individuals. APTA President Sharon Dunn and Vice President Matt Hyland took the time to speak with me, which was both surreal and encouraging. I use the word encouraging because if both of the most influential individuals in the profession want to hear from students, then that shows me that I am in the right field. That got me pumped!
After being starstruck, it was time for the Hill visit prep session. This was where we got the “meat” of current APTA public policy goals and initiatives. This was where we learned what to say to our legislators, how to say it, and explain to our lawmakers why it is vital. As I did my best to find a balance between listening and note taking, the team presented the issues that we face as a profession.
There are several priorities mentioned, but in a 15- to 20-minute meeting with a legislator's office, we had to prioritize our talking points. The big push was to continue to emphasize the importance of physical therapy's role in battling the opioid crisis. I encourage you to check out the current advocacy efforts. The information was presented in a practical, easily understandable manner, which was great for first-time attendees like me.
Once we were prepped for our Hill visits, it was time to break into groups for our respective states.
Now, this was something I was worried about before attending, and many other students can probably relate. I am from Florida. I am going to school in Missouri. I have no idea where I will live after I graduate. Conundrum, right? Not so much.
I decided it was best to stick with the Florida group since that is where I am currently registered to vote, and I am glad I did! This group huddle was used to organize the structure and flow of our meetings on Capitol Hill. Who goes where, who travels together, and who says what—that sort of thing. Spoiler alert: Florida rocked it out there on the Hill!
As the formal sessions for the day came to an end, I received multiple invites to have dinner with various groups of people. It was a difficult choice, but I ended up having dinner with a group of WUPT alums and we had a great time!
The fun continued after dinner with the annual PT-PAC party at SPIN. SPIN is a ping-pong bar in the heart of DC and, yes, it is as fun as it sounds! Chatting with too many awesome professionals to count was the highlight of this event for me. We talked physical therapy, advocacy, and about normal things that people who aren't physical therapists (PTs) talk about. It confirmed my beliefs that PTs really are awesome people, and, more importantly, passionate people.
PT-PAC is the sole fundraising organization that provides access to and influence on legislators to champion physical therapy legislative interests at the federal level. To put it simply, if every APTA member gave just $10, physical therapy would be the #1 health profession PAC. Currently, we are #9. You can donate any amount, if interested.
Today was the day we would get to meet with the offices of US Senators and House Representatives.
The nerve-racking thing about it is that you really don't know who you may meet with or run into. No pressure! But I should add that these legislators want to hear from us, especially future PTs and physical therapist assistants (PTAs).
Awake, alert, and enthusiastic, I hustle to the hotel for breakfast and a speech from a congressional speaker. Congressman Tony Cardenas of California took the time out of his day to speak with us about the importance of our profession. If I had to describe it, it was equivalent to Ray Lewis pumping you up in the pregame huddle before playing in the Super Bowl. It was truly the icing on the cake to an already inspiring couple of days. After that, I was ready to go!
My group convened and coordinated our Ubers to Capitol Hill for the 3 meetings we had scheduled. It was surreal walking through the halls of the congressional buildings. If you had to think of what a congressperson's office looked like, you're exactly right. Large wooden doors, desks with papers all over, and US historical mementos on the walls. I felt like I was in an episode of House of Cards to be completely honest. I felt a sense of worth and I was proud to be there to represent the profession I love.
I won't bore you with the details of my trip back home, but I will leave you with this. I reached out to the students who attended FAF and asked them to describe it in a single word. Here they are: Empowering; engaging; transformative; action-oriented; energizing; inspiring; eye-opening; exciting; incredible; reinvigorating; game-changer; and exhilarating.
I encourage all PT and PTA students to attend APTA Federal Advocacy Forum in the future. It is one of the most intimate and affordable national conferences available. If not, please consider attending a local or state advocacy event. Reach out to your state's federal affairs liaison to find out more information about how to get involved. Donate to PT-PAC. If anything at all, join APTA. They work tirelessly to make sure that physical therapy is a strong, well-represented profession. They work for you. This year's FAF fueled my fire and I want yours to be fueled too!
Alex Henderson, SPT, is a student at Washington University in St. Louis. You can connect with Alex via email.