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Pharmacy Grassroots: How YOU Can Be an Advocate for Pharmacy

Author: Barbara Sax


Ms. Sax is a freelance writer based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


It is never too late—or too soon—to become an advocate for your profession. When pharmacy students are involved in the issues affecting pharmacy, and they take steps to influence policy through the legislative and regulatory processes, students can actually help shape the profession they will be entering.

"To advocate means 'to speak up, to plead a case, to support a cause, or recommend a course of action,'" said Gary Wirth, RPh, vice president of state government affairs at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. "We all have a responsibility to contribute to the future of our profession, but it takes active involvement."

Gary Wirth, RPh

Gary Wirth, RPh

Wirth said that health care issues are extremely important to legislators as they deal with escalating health care costs and the need to expand access to health care services. "The world of pharmacy is changing rapidly, and pharmacy issues are often technical and difficult for laypersons to understand, so building an understanding of our issues is a long-term effort," he said.

Pharmacists, as the "face of neighborhood health care," are in a unique position to serve as patients' advocates with legislators, Wirth said. They can act as key information providers, regularly updating legislators on new challenges affecting the profession and new ways the profession can contribute to the greater good, such as through medication therapy management services. Because community pharmacists interact with a large number of patients—who happen to be voters—they are of great value to legislators. "Pharmacists are highly trusted health care professionals, and they are credible with legislators," said Wirth. "They also have the potential to directly influence the choices of voters and their engagement in the political process."

Through their direct access to large numbers of patients, community pharmacists can share policy messages with large numbers of customers, attain their signatures on petitions, and even coordinate their appearances at legislative hearings. It is an important and useful position.

Becoming Active

To make a difference, pharmacists need to be active. That does not mean that involvement needs to be time-consuming. "Participation in advocacy efforts can be as simple as keeping up-to-date on issues by reading trade journals and newspapers and then being willing to speak up when needed," said Wirth. "For busy pharmacy students and pharmacists, even taking a little time to make a phone call or fax a letter can help to shape legislation that impacts the future of our profession." Even a small amount of time can make a big difference, particularly when large numbers of people act together in a coordinated manner.

Finding an avenue into the legislative process can be daunting, but it is not impossible. Remember that you are often helping decision makers by providing them with information and opinions. "Legislators want to hear from their own constituents—those citizens whose votes elect them into office. They have a reason to value their relationships with you, the grassroots voter—particularly the pharmacy student—who may become a lifelong, active supporter," said Wirth. "The value of your vote—and the votes of other people you know and influence—makes you important to your legislators."

Wirth recommends starting with a pharmacy legislative day event. "Pharmacists from all settings come together for scheduled visits with legislators at the state capitol," he said. "Usually, a group briefing takes place beforehand to explain the issues for discussion with legislators and to distribute appointment details and information."

Group lobbying also can be a very effective way to increase awareness of pharmacy issues and enhance the influence of pharmacists in the legislative process. It also is an easy way for individuals just beginning their involvement in the issue to get involved, because working with a group is much less intimidating than individual visits. In addition, pharmacists who become active on issues often find that their continued participation helps them build relationships and credibility with policymakers.

It is important to take time to educate legislators and policymakers on an ongoing basis, and clearly describe how the issues affect pharmacists, other constituents, and health care in general. This process helps to support their understanding over the long term.

When it comes to key issues, every call, fax, or visit counts, so it is important that pharmacists weigh in on the issues. Wirth cites the "squeaky wheel" axiom. "The number of contacts a legislator receives about a particular issue sends a clear message about the relative importance of the issue," he said. "Many legislators direct their staff to keep a tally sheet to count the numbers of calls, faxes, and letters received on specific issues." On some issues, very little effort by many individuals adds up to big results.

Of course, pharmacists willing to ramp up their involvement to include personal visits to their legislators do an even greater service to the profession. "Personal visits, such as pharmacy legislative days, are great for building long-term relationships with legislators and key staff," said Wirth. They are the most difficult to arrange due to scheduling conflicts, travel requirements, and the time involved—especially during active periods of the legislative session.

For tips on preparing for an effective meeting with legislators, see the sidebar below.

Donations Count

One of the easiest ways to help effect change is through a campaign contribution. It is important for citizens to support those legislators who listen to their constituents and who attempt to provide solutions to their constituents' problems.

"Contributions are often linked to events that enable those who donate to meet and interact directly with legislators, so making a contribution to a favorable legislator's election campaign is a great way to say 'thank you' for being interested in pharmacy issues, to support the legislator's ability to continue in office, and to discuss other important issues impacting the profession," said Wirth.

Students also may contribute to certain political action committees (PACs) that are registered with the Federal Election Commission, which may be managed by advocacy professionals in support of specific issues or groups of constituents. By combining the contributions of a large number of constituents, PACs are able to make larger, more significant contributions than an individual and focus those contributions and related messages strategically to support the interests of PAC contributors, sometimes across a broad number of favorable and influential legislators.

"A contribution to a PAC will likely have greater impact than a small, individual contribution, although the contributor does not get the personal recognition from the ultimate recipients of the PAC funds," said Wirth.

Students can gather more information by conducting an Internet search using the terms "political action committee" or "PAC," or visit www.captitolconnect.com/nacds.

Tips for Meeting Success

Advance preparation is key to holding an effective meeting with a legislator and getting your message across.

  • Understand the issue or bill to be discussed
  • Prepare a fact sheet and talking points
    • Fact sheets should be only 1 to 2 pages, and include your contact information. Keep it simple.
    • Many associations have issue briefs and talking points readily available
  • Identify your goals, including the specific action you are requesting of the legislator. Be confident and positive.
  • Develop answers for likely questions and objections
  • Do background research on the legislator, including committee assignments, interests, and past successes
  • Personalize the issue with a related story. It is helpful to focus on aspects that are linked somehow to the legislator.
  • Check the legislative calendar, and call to schedule an appointment. Do not be surprised if you have to meet with an aide to the legislator. Legislative staff can be very influential.
  • If the legislator cancels or does not show up, ask to speak to an aide or ask to reschedule
  • Identify other legislators you may want to visit between appointments while you are in the area. Drop by their offices to say hello and make a quick point.

Do Not Forget To:

  • Check a map for building and parking locations. Allow extra time. If the legislature is in session, parking lots may be crowded as the day progresses.
  • Be prepared for delays at the security gates and the metal detectors. Large groups of advocates will slow the process. You may have to remove your shoes.
  • Wear comfortable shoes, suitable for lots of walking and stairs and standing on uneven surfaces
  • Thank the legislator for his or her time and follow-up (and answer any of the legislator's questions) with a letter or phone call