Health care professions consistently rank at the top of most trusted professions in the United States according to Gallup, but their expertise doesn’t always translate to meaningful health care policy.
In state and federal government, lobbyists play a pivotal role in advancing health care policy and advocating for legislation. That’s partly due to the structure of government. For example, state legislators in Texas work part-time in the state house and maintain a profession in their home district. Balancing state legislative duties, a profession, home life, and elections does not lend time for a member of the legislature to become well-versed in many subjects, including health care.
A group of lobbyists shared their expertise on how lobbying affects health care as part of UTHealth Houston’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), which is focused on Health Care Policy for Health Professionals. Known as HP2, UTHealth’s QEP promotes student engagement, critical thinking, and career preparedness, and reflects the university’s commitment to institutional quality and effectiveness.
The discussion “What is a lobbyist, and why should we care?” was the first in a three-part series on the legislative process.
Elected officials see a wide array of potential solutions for societal problems come through their chambers, including infrastructure, water, social services, education, and health care. And, while senators and representatives are elected to protect the interests of their districts, they realistically cannot be an expert in every field.
That’s where lobbyists come in — to help provide expert knowledge on a specific bill or field.
“The way I think of it is that my primary responsibility as a lobbyist is to be an educator,” said John Pitts, founder and managing principal of Texas Star Alliance, a bipartisan government affairs group. “State legislators cannot read the number of bills that are filed during the session. They depend on their staff and the lobbyists to educate them on the pros and cons of a bill. A good lobbyist explains both sides — that’s educating the member.”
Reputation is currency on Capitol Hill, and effectiveness depends on being truthful, Pitts said.
“It’s imperative to be nice to everyone — from the janitor to the governor. You never know where people will go in life. A low-level staffer may be speaker of the house a few sessions,” he said. “You want friends anyplace you can get them. The state house is a small fraternity. If you do not treat someone with respect, that word gets around very quickly. The worst thing you can do as a lobbyist is to not tell the truth — that word spreads like wildfire.”
Most professions and hobbies have a lobbyist fighting for and against their interests.
Texans have their duly elected officials fighting for their interests in Austin, but they also most likely have a lobbyist advocating for them as well.
“Everyone has a lobbyist. If you’re part of an association or have a hobby, you most likely have a lobbyist. People you think are pushing bad policy have a lobbyist as well,” said Clayton Travis, director of advocacy and policy for the Texas Pediatric Society.
“I’m a lobbyist for pediatricians, so I’m a lobbyist for children,” Travis said. “We insert ourselves into a lot of conversations. Pediatricians care about a lot of things, and our assistance is available for a wide array of issues: Medicaid and CHIP programs, immunization best practices, and more. Physicians are trusted in our community, and they are trusted at the Capitol. You will never see me testifying before Congress, you will see our doctors.”
The easiest way for students, staff, and clinicians to participate in the legislative process is by being an informed voter.
“It’s really important to make sure you’re registered to vote, and to participate in elections,” said Denise Rose, partner at the Jackson Walker law firm and former assistant vice president for Legislative Affairs at the Texas A&M Health Science Center. “Start getting engaged and paying attention to what is going on. If there is something you think should be changed or that concerns you, know your governmental relations professionals. They are incredible advocates at the Capitol. Make yourself aware of things around you, and how it impacts your job and patients, and become engaged in the process. There is a common saying at the Capitol that rings true, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’”
All of the panelists agreed that working with health profession associations or organizations with a vested interest in a health area and engaging the UTHealth Houston Governmental Relations team are the best ways to address health policy concerns in federal and state governments.
This discussion was the first in a series highlighting how public policy affects health care and research.
Upcoming forums include:
April 8: The 87th Legislative Session: How did health care fare?
September 23: The health policy agenda for the 88th Legislative Session
The series is a collaboration between the Quality Enhancement Plan team and the UTHealth Houston Office of Governmental Relations.
It is part of UTHealth Houston’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), which is focused on Health Care Policy for Health Professionals. Known as HP2, this QEP promotes student engagement, critical thinking, and career preparedness, and reflects the university’s commitment to institutional quality and effectiveness.
Read more about the QEP or view the recent panel on lobbying on the UTHealth Houston intranet.