In late January, NH-ME LEND hosted Keynote speaker Laura Sweet and additional panelists as part of its virtual Spring Semester Kick Off Event “Organizing to Influence Your State’s Policy.”
Ms. Sweet spoke about her advocacy work around cytomegalovirus (CMV) screening and education, and how collaboration with multiple stakeholder groups—including medical providers and legislators in Maine—has been so critical.
The six panelists from New Hampshire and Maine presented a variety of perspectives on policymaking which generated robust discussions with trainees centered on organizing and mobilizing around issues, the influence of people with disabilities and family members on policy, the importance of educating legislators, and building coalitions. The session was designed to prepare trainees for the annual Disability Policy Seminar (DPS) in Washington DC, where trainees will learn about disability policy, network, and meet with congressional delegations.
“Policy work is really problem-solving—always trying to figure out where we can find agreement on what government’s job is,” said Maine State Senator Catherine Breen. “When I boil down all of the different debates I’ve had over the years about policies or bills or budgets, they all come down to one thing: do people agree what the job of government is? That’s where you find the widest disparities and opportunity for agreement.”
Dr. Alan Cobo-Lewis, NH-ME LEND Program Co-director and panel moderator, reflected, “My experience, in general, is that people doing [policy] work do it because they want to make positive change, but they may not know what positive change looks like for our community.”
Highlighting the importance of educating legislators, Kelly Ehrhart, President of People First of New Hampshire shared, “The Medicaid adult dental benefit was a need for the [New Hampshire] community and if the legislators weren’t made aware of this issue, there never would have been a bill passed to address that need.”
In closing, Senator Breen encouraged trainees not to be deterred by short-term failure; sometimes meaningful policy change requires years of sustained attention. “If a bill fails this session,” said Breen, “build a coalition, build a group of people that includes all of the different stakeholders around that issue, have research that backs up what you're trying to do, have experts in the field, who are not only national but local. Models from other states or national expertise can go both ways, so you have to make sure you have some homegrown expertise and homegrown credibility.”