Getting Involved in Grassroots Pharmacy Advocacy

Pharmacy can't be effectively represented by federal legislators alone.

Not a single pharmacist was part of any previous US Congress. Today, in Congress’ 114th session, there’s only 1 pharmacist.

In fact, of the 541 individuals in today’s Congress, fewer than 6% have a health care background.1 Therefore, pharmacy can’t be effectively represented by federal legislators alone.

Some argue that state legislatures tend to be greater drivers for pharmacy policy. Although there’s far more than 1 pharmacist serving in state-level offices, it’s still just a drop in the bucket with only 47 pharmacist legislators spread across 50 states.2

Where does this leave leaders of our profession? The unofficial motto for the advocacy efforts of the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) has been “get into politics or get out of pharmacy.”3 Utah representative and pharmacist Evan J. Vickers has echoed that sentiment, adding that every time he speaks to a pharmacy group, he urges members to get involved in politics “because [it] has become an integral part of what we do.”4

Surely, pharmacy is of the most regulated professions in the country, and in order to protect it, pharmacists need to be politically involved. But getting into politics doesn’t mean you need to run for office, nor does it mean you have to be an expert in governmental operations.

Become an Engaged Constituent

In most cases, pharmacists have 5 elected officials representing them at the state and federal level. Think of these officials as your year-round pharmacy interns taking an elective in legislative pharmacy issues. Your goal is to connect with these unconventional “students” and educate them. This connection between constituents and legislators is referred to as grassroots advocacy, and it’s important for a number of reasons.

First, our legislatures lack pharmacy representation. Very few of them come from the health care field, and even fewer are pharmacists. How can we expect their actions to be in our best interest without providing them reliable information?

Brian Gallagher, senior vice president of government affairs for the American Pharmacists Association, recently underscored this point, saying, “[Legislators] identify problems and think of possible solutions for them. The possible solutions can be either good for pharmacists or bad for pharmacists. It is the job of pharmacists to advocate for themselves and explain the consequences before [a] law is passed to make sure the good-for-pharmacists solution is the one chosen.”3

Compounding legislation, mobile health solutions, provider status for pharmacists, and biosimilar regulation are just a few of the regulatory issues that can have a major impact—positive or negative—on pharmacy. So, why wouldn’t you want to be informed about these issues and get involved in how they play out in the political arena?

Second, maintaining an open dialogue with legislators gives our profession a consistent voice in politics that extends beyond the term of an individual elected official. Indeed, by the time you have formed an effective relationship with your legislator, term limits or failure to be reelected can mean it’s time to enroll another “student” in your pharmacy elective. Unless incoming legislators already have established relationships with a pharmacist, they’ll need to find a “preceptor” because their pharmacy knowledge is likely lacking.

Finally, and perhaps most important, you should engage with your legislators because they want to hear from you. Once they do, they’ll quickly realize that pharmacy issues affect all of their constituents, not just pharmacists.

For example, you want to be recognized as a provider so you can ensure better patient outcomes. You want to protect against drug shortages so patient safety isn’t compromised. You want to make sure that providing compounded medications is still feasible so patients who need them can obtain them. Talk about these patient benefits to legislators, because ultimately, they need constituent approval for continuation in office.

Become an Engaged Member

There’s always an endless list of political issues that have the potential to affect pharmacy and thus need to be addressed with legislators. Two very effective methods for reaching elected officials with your message are lobbying and grassroots campaigns.

Whereas grassroots campaigns are built around incumbent—constituent relationships, being an effective grassroots advocate goes hand-in-hand with being an active member of 1 or more professional pharmacy associations.

There are many benefits to being an engaged member of these associations. For instance, you can use the resources of the groups to stay up-to-date on issues affecting pharmacy. This is an invaluable tool, given the scheduling constraints most pharmacists face.

As Texas senator and pharmacist Leticia Van de Putte noted, “pharmacists don’t have the time or energy or the expertise to figure out everything that’s happening in Washington, DC, and at the state capital that affects them.”3 By equipping members with reliable information, pharmacy associations also benefit because your involvement helps these groups minimize the costs of organizing stakeholders, which is always a challenge in mounting an effective grassroots campaign.

Association membership extends beyond obtaining reliable information. Most major pharmacy associations have advocacy branches that engage in lobbying. Lobbying is the strategic communication of politically relevant information to government officeholders, and it’s typically more effective as the number of constituents represented by the association increases.5 Therefore, just being a member of a professional pharmacy association is an important first step toward benefiting the profession, and it’s an excellent example of a synergistic relationship.

Become a Grassroots Pharmacy Advocate

When choosing an association to join, make sure it has a strong track record for advocating on behalf of pharmacy’s main issues. My recommendation is to join your local or state pharmacy association and one national pharmacy group, such as the APhA or the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. By doing so, you’re ensuring that your support of pharmacy is reflected at both the state and federal levels and that you receive valuable information regarding issues in both arenas. Many state associations include membership in a regional and/or local pharmacy association, which can help facilitate the connection with your legislators.

It can also be valuable to belong to a more focused association that matches your field of practice. For example, pharmacists working in the managed care field may want to consider joining the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, while those working in specialty pharmacy may find that joining the National Association of Specialty Pharmacy helps keep them informed of issues occurring in their field. The NCPA is likely a good fit for pharmacists working in retail.

Connect with Your Legislators

Before you can become an effective grassroots pharmacy advocate, you must determine who your legislators are and connect with them. Identifying your legislators is probably the easiest step, as you can go to the legislative body’s website and search simply by providing your address.

After you’ve found your legislators, try using some of these strategies to connect with them:

  • Write letters, send e-mails, or make phone calls to educate them on pertinent pharmacy issues. Be sure to relate those issues to your own practice and your patients. Need a prompt to reach out? Many associations offer the option to enroll in a response network, which will send you e-mail and social media alerts when legislators should be contacted about pressing pharmacy issues.
  • Invite your legislators to tour your practice site. This will really help them grasp what you do and how you’re helping their constituents.
  • Visit your legislator in person. If you’re going to be near the capital, schedule an appointment to meet with your legislator. Often, state legislators will host local coffee hours, and federal legislators will have office hours in their home state.
  • Volunteer to work on an election campaign. Nothing opens the door to a legislator’s office quite like helping him or her get elected or reelected.
  • Can’t find any prescheduled times to meet with your legislator? Work with your local pharmacy association to host a legislative coffee hour and invite 1 or all of your local legislators. This strategy can be especially appealing to legislators as it creates an opportunity for more exposure to their constituents.

Support Pharmacy PACs

As part of their advocacy component, most pharmacy associations have formed a political action committee (PAC). The purpose of a pharmacy PAC is to raise funds to elect political candidates in the best interest of pharmacy, but PACs can do a lot more than help elect a preferred candidate. Once elected, that legislator may give more time to the supporting PAC members to discuss the committee’s concerns.

Top contributors in the health care field in the 2016 election cycle include the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Society of Anesthesiologists. The nearest pharmacy-based PAC was the NCPA, which was ranked 15th among health professional PACs in total candidate contributions as of June 2016.6

For more guidance on how to become an effective grassroots pharmacy advocate, visit your pharmacy association’s website. Most will include tips and suggestions for connecting with your legislators, as well as guides to current legislation.

References

  • Manning JE. Membership of the 114th Congress: a profile. Congressional Research Service. fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43869.pdf. Published 2015. Accessed June 1, 2016.
  • Bonner L. ‘Great policy makers’: 48 elected pharmacists in national, state office. Pharmacy Today. pharmacist.com/node/838316?is_sso_called=1. Published 2015. Accessed June 1, 2016.
  • Roberts BT. Get into politics or get out of pharmacy. The Dose: The Voice of the Community Pharmacist. ncpanet.wordpress.com/2010/02/19/%E2%80%98get-into-politics-or-get-out-of-pharmacy%E2%80%99/. Published 2010. Accessed June 1, 2016.
  • Whitmer C. Pharmacists in politics. Pharmacy Today. pharmacist.com/pharmacists-politics-0. Published 2012. Accessed June 1, 2016.
  • Baron DP. Business and its environment. 7th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson; 2013.
  • The Center for Responsive Politics. Health professionals. opensecrets.org/pacs/industry.php?txt=H01. Published 2016. Accessed June 1, 2016.