Taking it to the Hill: Making West Virginia’s Voices Heard!

“If you don’t use YOUR voice to speak up for your profession of pharmacy and patients, someone else will. And that ‘someone else’ will not have your knowledge to make the good decisions that need to be made. YOUR voice makes all the difference.”

Dr. Betsy Elswick has been taking student pharmacists enrolled in her pharmacy advocacy and leadership course to Washington, DC and Capitol Hill every Spring for over 15 years. The course was developed at a time when West Virginia’s pharmacy practice act was in severe need of updating and laws for pharmacists to provide immunizations did not yet exist. At the time, Drs. Betsy Elswick and Kristy Lucas, who was on faculty at WVU and is now Dean at the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy, sat down for a meeting in Morgantown to iron out the details of what the course would involve and what the purpose of the course would be.

“I wanted the course to give our student pharmacists the background and experience to find their voices in advocacy. We knew that if we could empower a few pharmacy students over time, we would create hundreds of new pharmacist graduates who could effectively advocate for their advanced role in health care,” said Elswick. “We knew training students in advocacy efforts was
a key step in moving the dial forward so that pharmacy practice in West Virginia could match the advanced level of training our students were receiving.”

As part of these annual visits to DC, Elswick also sets aside time for students (and pharmacy residents) to tour the headquarters of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA). Located on Constitution Avenue, APhA is the only non-federal building that lines Constitution Avenue on the nation’s Mall. This year marked the first year since the pandemic started that students and faculty returned for in-person visits to APhA and Capitol Hill. During their visit to APhA, students met with one of APhA Foundation’s Executive Residents, Dr. Shivani Modi who took them on a tour of the building and spoke about her residency experience. For students, hearing about opportunities in association management executive training was new and held possibilities that they had not thought about yet.
Following their visit to APhA, Elswick along with her students headed to Capitol Hill. There, they met with staff members from Senators Capito and Manchin’s offices, as well as staff from Representatives Miller and Mooney’s offices. Even though Congress was not in session, Elswick stressed that some of her most productive visits have involved key members of a Congressperson’s staff. Legislative and congressional staff members provide their office with valuable information about key pieces of legislation to support or oppose. During this year’s visits, Elswick allowed her students to lead conversations about what was important to them in terms of proposed policy or personal concerns they have. A key piece of education that the group instilled with each office was the important role that pharmacists, student pharmacists
and technicians had during the pandemic. “Each office was extremely complimentary of the work that pharmacy has done during the pandemic. They applauded our efforts to ‘run to the fire’ and make sure that our nursing home patients and communities who were most at-risk for complications from COVID-19 were among the first in the nation to receive life-saving vaccines.”

Shortly following the Hill visits that they conducted on Friday, April 14, 2023, Elswick and her student pharmacists received very exciting news. “We received notification that Congresswoman Carol Miller signed onto H.R. 1770 on Tuesday, April 18, as a co-sponsor. The students and I were over the moon that our voices had been heard and that Rep. Miller signed onto the bill that we had talked to their staff member about.”

Playing off that success, Elswick said that discussions were held about ways to continue the work that the pharmacy profession had contributed in communities most in need as the pandemic winds down. “We spoke about H.R. 1770, The Equitable Community Access to Pharmacist Services Act. We spoke about the continued need for rural communities to have access to pharmacists’ life-saving services for COVID-19, flu, RSV, and strep testing and treatments, not just in West Virginia, but nationwide. We framed our conversations on the success that we had already clearly established through successful pharmacy models, such as those found in West Virginia, that led the country and the world early on in the pandemic in terms of COVID-19 vaccinations efforts,” Elswick said.

Dr. Elswick stresses that anyone, and not just those enrolled in her class, can plan successful trips to Capitol Hill with some advanced notice and work. Here are her tips to help plan your trip to Washington:
 “DO work through your Congressional offices to set up visits ahead of time using their website scheduling requests. Each office has a designated area on their website to submit requests for visits. They can also assist you in reserving special tours of the Capitol, Senate/House chambers, and White House. If you can’t make it to Washington, you can also schedule a visit at their local office in West Virginia.
 DO your homework prior to the visits to know what current and pending legislation exists in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Use your state and national pharmacy associations’ government affairs divisions, such as WVPA and APhA, to provide you with talking points or fact sheets to provide to offices if asked.
 DO understand your Congressional member’s voting patterns and backgrounds that may help you better understand how to create meaningful conversations with them. Doing some homework ahead of time and making positive connections that you may have with staff members can make all the difference in creating positive visits for everyone!
 DO allow yourself enough scheduling time between visits that you aren’t rushed or late for your next visit. I always schedule my visits on the Senate side of Capitol Hill first and then end my day with House visits. If possible, I allow 45-60 minutes between visits. Sometimes a staff member will escort your group through the underground tunnel systems which saves time when traveling across the U.S. Capitol Complex.
 DON’T threaten or use language that may be seen as disparaging or offensive when speaking to Congressional staff or members. Generally, these offices are always happy to meet their constiuents from their home states and districts who have made the tremendous effort to travel to Washington. Make these visits memorable and positive by showcasing the good work that your profession has done to serve WV.
 Finally, DO always follow-up with offices to thank them for their time. Continue to keep in touch with these staff members and offices. A person once told me that the best time to speak to your elected officials is when you want nothing at all in return so that your routine communications will continue to resonate when important pieces of legislation are on the table.”