Advocating for Women’s Health: Finding Common Ground

I have had many opportunities, particularly in the past year, to discuss how important women’s health issues are to investing in our country. Recently our Committee on Government Affairs and staff carried that message to the highest level at ACOG’s 32nd Annual Congressional Leadership Conference (CLC) in Washington, DC. With themes like ‘meeting you halfway,’ we were instilled with faith in our congressional leaders who are looking for collaboration, consensus, and progress. Women’s health should be a nonpartisan, centrist issue. After all, blue and red together create purple, the theme color for this year’s “Every Woman, Every Time” CLC.

A large conference like the CLC can be a scheduling nightmare in the best of circumstances. But add six inches of snow on the day of the main conference and all could have failed. What do you do if you are hosting a roundtable discussion with a congressman who was out of state and snowed in? No problem—we had Skype. Another snowbound yet determined congresswoman was delivered to the CLC via a four-wheel drive. A keynote speaker’s flight was cancelled, so he rented a car and drove four hours to deliver his lecture for us. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

At this year’s CLC, we prepared for four important “asks” before we met with our congressional leaders. We discussed SGR repeal, graduate medical education funding to improve access and create residency slots, legislation around gestational diabetes screening and research, and medical liability reform with Safe Harbor legislation. AMA President Elect Dr. Robert Wah, an ob-gyn, summarized many of these issues and then wrapped them all together in a great package. Our final launch was a greeting by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA 14th District), followed by a rousing presentation by Dr. Ernie Bodai as he described the role of advocacy in getting the postage stamp for breast cancer awareness passed. Finally, we were ready to go to Capitol Hill with our ‘asks.’

Now, what is my ‘ask’ for you? To get involved. You are our leaders and we need you to advocate for women and physicians. Plan now on attending the 33rd CLC in 2015 with Dr. John Jennings.

Guest Post: My Journey to Women’s Health Advocate

E. Christine Brousseau, MD

E. Christine Brousseau, MD

For many years I had no interest in politics. I focused my energy on caring for my patients and my family. My interest in public policy wasn’t cultivated in college, medical school, or at work. Instead, it was born of necessity, groomed by mentors, and became a passion.

In 2010, I was elected the Rhode Island Section vice chair/legislative chair. I was expected to testify at the State House, meet with legislators, and write op-eds. I was invited to ACOG’s Congressional Leadership Conference, which emphasized and trained proper advocacy. Two days into the conference, I met with Rhode Island’s federal lawmakers—alone. I returned home inspired to advocate on behalf of women and women’s health practitioners. Advocacy did not come naturally, but my passion for the issues did.

I was thrilled to be selected as a 2013 McCain Fellow. On my second day, I met with a coalition of lobbyists supporting maternal and childhood health formed to educate Congress on sequestration’s negative effects on families. I was surprised to learn how many bills affect maternal-fetal health. Briefings on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and a reproductive rights bill seemed obvious, but the Toxic Substances Control Act hearings were unexpectedly relevant.

I attended numerous meetings with congressional leaders. At one, I sat beside Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), an Iraq War veteran and one of the first females to fly combat missions in Iraq. During one mission, her helicopter was shot down; she lost both legs and partial use of her arm. When I asked how she handles today’s partisan politics, she replied, “Listen, I’ve been blown up! I think my worst day at the office is behind me.” Rep. Duckworth traces her family’s legacy of military service back to the Revolutionary War. A career in service seemed to be her calling, but she could not have predicted that her greatest service would be in politics, not combat.

Many of my academic and career choices have also been guided by family legacy. My father, Patrick Sweeney, also was a McCain Fellow, something I learned only recently. His dedication to women’s health policy and advocacy led me to practice medicine and has had a tremendous positive influence on countless women. While I never envisioned being involved in politics, advocacy presented me with an opportunity to improve women’s health in Rhode Island and beyond. Like Rep. Duckworth, I will embrace the opportunity with persistence and, hopefully, a sense of humor.

E. Christine Brousseau, MD, is an ob-gyn in Providence, RI and serves as Vice Chair for ACOG’s Rhode Island Section.

Guest Blog: How I Learned to Speak Up for Women

Susan P. Raine, MD, JD, LLM

Susan P. Raine, MD, JD, LLM

ACA, SGR, CR, E&C—the list goes on. I thought once I became an ob-gyn, my days of being lost in the world of strange acronyms were over. Then I arrived on Capitol Hill. Thanks to the wisdom of the District XI leadership, I proudly accepted the honor of becoming the first McCain Fellow from our district. This opportunity allowed me to spend two weeks this past September with the Government Affairs staff of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

Every February, I attend the ACOG Congressional Leadership Conference (CLC) in Washington, DC. During an exciting three-day meeting, ob-gyns learn about the legislative issues most likely to impact us and our patients. We then visit congressional offices to present ACOG’s legislative “asks.” It is an invigorating process—particularly when you are doing it with 300 other ob-gyns. Personal politics aside, this was an amazing opportunity for me and for the women I was there to represent.

When I came back to DC this past September as the McCain Fellow, I was worried that I had forgotten all I had learned seven months earlier at the 2013 CLC. However, after a day of warm-up, I felt ready to speak intelligently to Congressional members and their staff about ACOG’s legislative priorities. That doesn’t mean I felt I could do it as well as the lobbyists or that I did it without anxiety. But I did it. And it’s not enough. That’s the great responsibility that comes with my “forever” status as a McCain Fellow. It’s not enough to advocate for my colleagues and our patients; I have to convince others that they need to do the same. We must be the voice of those who have none.

Many doctors tell me that they hate politics and that they can’t stand the partisan bickering. When I was younger, a little more naïve, and very idealistic, I wanted a career in politics but became disillusioned by what I saw happening in our government. With the benefit of a little age, wisdom, and perspective, I now realize that we live in the greatest country in the world. I can speak up and disagree with our leaders without going to jail. I am not tortured for my opinions nor is my family taken from me. As a woman with two doctorates and two master’s degrees, my opinions are valued. Not just because I am educated and not despite the fact that I am a woman, but because I am an American. Our system is far from perfect, but it’s ours. If we really want to make a difference for women, we will embrace it rather than rail against it.

So what can you do? If you have a few days to get away, plan on coming to next year’s CLC. If you have a little more time or a particular interest in advocacy and health policy, apply to serve on ACOG’s Government Affairs Committee. Don’t forget, local opportunities offer a chance to get involved with minimal time away from your practice. Most of all, be aware of every opportunity to advocate—for yourself, for the next generation of ob-gyns, for your patients, and for women everywhere. It is an honor and a privilege to do what we do. With your contribution to our advocacy efforts, maybe we can keep the legislators out of our exam rooms.

For information on getting involved in advocacy, go to http://bit.ly/1brBOLV.

Susan P. Raine, MD, JD, LLM, is vice chair of Global Health Initiatives, and associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology, at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

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