Fourteen PA students took over PAEA’s headquarters in early September for the annual Student Health Policy Fellowship (SHPF). The SHPF is a program designed to enhance students’ understanding of political processes and health policy, as well as inspire grassroots advocacy to promote the PA profession as an integral part of the health care system.
The Fellowship is structured to develop students’ skills in three main areas:
- Advocacy: learning how the legislative process works — primarily at the federal level — and how to become effective advocates
- Leadership: building and refining the skills necessary to organize and lead others in advancing health policy issues at the local, state, and national level
- PAs and the health care environment: developing an appreciation for the role of PAEA and AAPA in advancing the goals of PA education and practice communities-at-large
To accomplish each of these objectives, students attended workshops and met with policy leaders, including those in the legislative and executive branches of the government, as well as PA and health care leaders.
“It was a great success, and each year the experience gets better and better,” said Kendall Mealy, PAEA’s manager of government relations and advocacy and the coordinator of the Fellowship.
To prepare the fellows for their time in the nation’s capital, the first few sessions centered around the importance of advocacy to PA education and the PA profession. Kristen Butterfield, director of grassroots advocacy at AAPA, spoke to the students about why advocacy is important and how to empower themselves to be advocates for PAs. Susie Gorden, vice president of the Congressional Management Foundation, led a storytelling session to help the fellows craft compelling, individualized messages to better drive home their concerns to their Members of Congress.
On their second morning, the students got a chance to talk with Emily Holubowich, executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding, about the power of coalitions and grassroots advocacy. Since more voices are stronger than one, coalitions and collaborations are essential to advance advocacy agendas.
The fellows also got a Hill visit preparation crash course from Tim Perrin, policy advisor at Polsinelli. Perrin walked the fellows through the “Washington landscape” — how the politics of elections are influencing the dynamics of Congress, expectations for the rest of this session, and what to expect when visiting congressional offices.
The fellows then traveled to Capitol Hill for the main event, where they visited more than 35 congressional offices and met with a record 12 Members of Congress about PA education issues and legislation — specifically, the Physician Assistant Education Public Health Initiatives Act and the Physician Assistant Education Modernization Act.
The former would authorize loan repayment programs to help PAs who practice in underserved communities or spend at least two years as a PA educator. This bill would also increase support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to become PAs. The latter would make PA education more accessible for minorities, as well as ensure PA programs have cutting-edge technology to help prepare their students for practice.
“I never felt like I was unprepared for any situation that arose. The program prepared me well for future advocacy,” said one fellow.
To round out the experience, the fellows got to meet with Bess Evans, senior associate director of public engagement and senior policy advisor in the White House Office of Public Engagement. Evans hosted an open dialog with the students about the Obama Administration’s health care priorities, implementation efforts for the Affordable Care Act, and challenges and barriers to accessing care.
The fellows left D.C. energized, engaged, and excited about advocacy. But the Fellowship doesn’t end now that the students have returned home. Over the next year, they will work with mentors from PAEA’s Government Relations and External Affairs Council on advocacy projects to be implemented in their own community.
“We are excited to see the projects the student advocates develop. I’m sure they will involve sharing their knowledge with their fellow students and program faculty,” said Athena Abdullah, PAEA’s director of government relations.
The goal of the fellows’ advocacy projects is to make a positive impact on the PA profession, local or state community, or a PA program. Past student projects have included organizing a lobby day at a state capitol, voter turn-out drives, advocacy presentations at PA state associations, and PA awareness campaigns with community health centers.
“I had the time of my life at this fellowship,” one fellow said. “I’m so excited to take my new ideas back to the community.”