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Legislative Update
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AMHCA to Step Up Advocacy Efforts in the New Congress

By James Finley,
Associate Executive Director and Director of Public Policy

Since my October column, members of Congress have been on the campaign trail and absent from Washington. The break from usual business has given AMHCA time to consider how it will ramp up advocacy in the new year in response to new threats to clinical mental health counselors in the changing healthcare environment. 

With the election still ahead, we are hearing from AMHCA members across the country that they feel more threatened than ever by the exclusion from Medicare and their inability to participate in the rapidly changing health system. We particularly hear about the need to step up congressional advocacy in January. 

What is driving this new anxiety in the profession? The short answer is the Medicare exclusion combined with healthcare reform. Rapid change in delivery systems threatens the standing of the profession. Even without closure on President Obama’s health-reform law, new delivery models are phasing in across the country for Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance. Members fear reduced practice opportunities and income if they are excluded from the emerging delivery systems. 

On the upside in this threatening environment, 32 million more citizens are expected to obtain health coverage in 2014, with greatly improved coverage for behavioral health services. Mental health counselors will have more opportunity to address underlying behavior health disorders to improve medical outcomes and reduce overall costs. Clinicians who can produce convincing data to demonstrate to emerging health plans a case for inclusion could thrive. But integrated delivery and financial structures designed to reshape healthcare practice and organization are the price of admission for professionals. If clinical mental health counselors continue to be excluded from Medicare coverage, then the marketplace will discriminate strongly against their inclusion, so it will be unlikely, but not technically impossible, for CMHCs to participate in the new healthcare delivery and financial structures. 

What AMHCA Will Do

AMHCA President Karen Langer, LMHC, mentions in her column this month the importance of our committees. Organizing grassroots advocacy is a key role of our Public Policy and Legislation Committee. It is vital to an energetic grassroots membership. Our leaders and volunteers will work through chapters to increase coordination with legislative liaisons from each chapter. AMHCA’s coalition role is also critical for success. 

Our first goal in 2013 is to work with our coalition partners and grassroots membership to find a House Republican willing to sponsor our bill. This has been a major challenge that must be overcome. Members must communicate with AMHCA leaders to return feedback on how we’re doing and how well our message is getting through. Though all member feedback is important to us, we are particularly interested in hearing what our member learn from their contacts with legislators. 

At the staff level, AMHCA is revamping our website to make it easier to find legislative information by topic, particularly on Medicare. We are also adding a new page of sample advocacy letters for members to send to their Representative and Senators. Staff is using webinars to reach the membership around the country to make sure they understand the risks and opportunities in the emerging environment. We know our advocacy challenges are profound. 

What Can You Do Now? 

Be proactive, urge your colleagues who have not joined national efforts to get involved now. Practitioners must do something more than before, because the old ways didn’t work and the new environment is worse. 

Simply put, the profession must recognize that disengagement and quiet waiting for recognition are not effective. 

The congressional environment is extraordinarily tough—more pressure is absolutely essential. AMHCA staff will help coordinate grassroots activities, but our staff is very small, making membership numbers and responsiveness even more essential. AMHCA urges members to take new steps now, and encourages all mental health counselors to:  

  • Join with AMHCA’s membership and promote it at the chapter level; strong state and national memberships are vital.
  • Urge your state chapters to lead your state’s grassroots congressional activity.
  • Read Legislative Update articles in every issue of “The Advocate”; check our website or Facebook for updates.
  • Follow our legislative alerts and updates and respond to action requests.
  • Inform AMHCA of your legislative organizers and pay attention to their requests.
  • Report on challenges you confront advocating for the profession—use your AMHCA board representative

Let’s join together to build, organize, and advance!