Optometry in Action: How to Be an Optometric Advocate and Legislative Keyperson

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With rapid changes in healthcare technology and telemedicine, there's perhaps never been a more important time for optometrists to get involved in local and federal legislative initiatives. Deciding you want to make a difference in changing the course and direction of the profession is a vital first step, but the truth is that getting involved with legislative action can be daunting.  How do you develop a relationship with your local or state representatives?  How do you get your opinions and passion for eyecare and patient advocacy heard?

For the last few years I've volunteered with the North Carolina Optometric Society as a District Keyperson, meaning that for my local area I'm the point person to get in touch with my Senator and House Representative about the issues affecting our profession and patient care.  Volunteering was the easy part - I was already a member of the state society, attending local continuing education events and the annual State Legislative Day where optometrists from across the state journeyed to Raleigh to meet with legislators downtown.  But after committing to being a Keyperson I realized one huge issue: I had no idea what I was supposed to do.  We didn't take any course in optometry school on lobbying or legislative action.  I was totally at a loss.

Luckily for me, the great team of advocates and lobbyists with the NCOS have been an excellent guide.  So if you've made that leap to volunteer (and congrats and thank you -- optometry needs you!!), here's a primer on how to be an advocate:

1. Find Your Legislators
You can contact your local state optometric association for this information, or head to Open States and type in your address to find your representatives. The legislators you should focus on are those either where you live or where you work; you should be one of their constituents, active in their community.

2. Request a Meeting
This next part may sound crazy, but you need to pick up a telephone and call! To make the initial meeting request, a phone call will go a lot further in creating a relationship than an email will.  You will likely speak with a staff member when you call and not the legislator themselves, but don't ignore the staff!  They are essential to getting you a meeting, so make sure you connect with them positively and are friendly no matter who picks up the phone.

-Have a specific request for the meeting:  "I need 30 minutes to discuss..."  Giving specifics helps get you on the books.

-Email a follow-up shortly after you make the phone call to thank them and say you are looking forward to the meeting.

3. Prepare for 1 Main Issue
While there might be a laundry list of items you want your legislator to address, their time is valuable.  Focus on one specific issue to make sure your point is heard and that the meeting is seen as a positive time spend for your legislator.

-Leave behind materials that address your main point.  Your legislator is meeting with people all day long, but if you leave behind a small packet or papers with clean, easy to follow bullet points they may circle back to your issue later that day when they see it laying on their desk.

-Connect personally by telling your story.  Talk about yourself as a small business owner or healthcare provider in the community. Talk about your patients and the issues they are dealing with.  Stories of specific people in their community that demonstrate your issue can leave a strong and lasting impression of the issue.  Remember your legislators are real people that got into political action because they care about serving their community.  There isn't much money in state and local politics.  If you connect to them person to person about the community they love and are passionate about, then your message will have a much stronger meaning. Your here because you are passionate about the community too, so you both already have a lot in common!

4. Execute Your Ask
Wrap up your meeting with a specific request.  "I need you to..."  This is a powerful way of closing your meeting and calling your legislator to action.  

5. Follow-Up
Bring out the pen and paper; a personal, written thank you note is an important final step to making your meeting count. Address the note to both the legislator and their staff. Reiterate in your note the support and action you need your legislator to take: "Thank you so much for committing your support..."

6. Circle Back with Your State Association
After you meet with your legislator, it is important to let your local optometric state association know the outcome or issues raised during your meeting. Knowing the legislators opinions and thoughts on the profession or any patient care issues can help your state association in crafting a more effective grassroots message.  A quick email to the point person for your state association's advocacy is all it takes!

The North Carolina Optometric Society Young Leadership Program meets with Senator Jay Chaudhuri

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