Volume 36 Number 1 | February 2022
Stephanie Noblit, Esq, MLS(ASCP)CM
This article first appeared as a post for the ASCLS Ascending Professionals Forum blog, The Labora-Story.
What does it take to be an advocate for the clinical laboratory, or a “labvocate,” as we like to say in ASCLS? Honestly, not much. You do not need to know the regulatory process by heart or understand every minute detail in a piece of legislation. All you need is a passion for the laboratory and a story.
On October 25, 2021, labvocates from around the country gathered together both in person in Alexandria, Virginia, and virtually for the Annual Laboratory Legislative Symposium. We spent Monday learning about the issues currently facing the clinical laboratory from a variety of experts. Then on Tuesday we took our message to Capitol Hill (mostly via Zoom this year due to COVID-19). I highly recommend everyone attend the Legislative Symposium at least once because it is such a unique and powerful event, but I understand that is just not an option for everyone. However, there are ways you can be a labvocate from home.
“When working with Congress it is important to play the long game and not get discouraged.”
Learn Who Represents You
The first thing you need to do to be a labvocate is figure out who represents you in Congress. If you do not know who represents you, you can easily locate that information through a quick search. Everyone has one representative in the House of Representatives, which you can find at www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative, and two senators in the Senate, which you can find at www.senate.gov/states/statesmap.htm. Once you know who represents you, take a look at the member’s website to find out more about their background, the issues they are passionate about, their stance on particular topics, and their committee assignments. Having some background information on your member of congress can help you to construct your message in a way that leaves a lasting impression.
Focus on Issues Facing the Laboratory
Now let’s briefly discuss the current issues facing the laboratory: the clinical laboratory workforce shortage and laboratory reimbursement. The clinical laboratory workforce shortage is an issue that has been going on for years and has only gotten worse due to COVID-19. This issue is self-explanatory—more people are leaving the profession than are entering. Laboratory professionals are leaving the profession for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, retirement, burnout, or needing to stay home to take care of children or elderly parents.
With each person that leaves the profession, we lose not only a body in the lab, but also all of the knowledge and expertise that person brought to the job. Medical laboratory education programs are not able to push out enough graduates to fill all the vacancies, which leaves many laboratory professionals working in a short-staffed environment.
The laboratory reimbursement issue is a little more complicated. Rather than go into detail in this article, check out the resources at www.nila-usa.org/nila/PAMA.asp to learn more about the Protecting Access to Medicare Act (PAMA).
Communicate with Your Representatives
Once you have a handle on the issues (and by no means do you need to be an expert), you can start communicating these issues to your Congressional representatives. You do not have to be in Washington, D.C., to contact your members of Congress. Congressional offices can be reached easily by phone or email. Additionally, all senators and representatives have local offices in the state that constituents can visit to meet with staff or even the member of Congress themselves.
Emailing, calling, or visiting a congressional office may seem intimidating, but the most important thing to remember is that you are the expert. As a clinical laboratory professional, you know the ins and outs of the clinical lab. Even if you are just beginning your career in the clinical laboratory, you will still know so much more about the clinical laboratory than the staffers with which you are communicating. Be confident in your knowledge and expertise of the clinical laboratory.
As part of your message, you will want to present a specific ask or request. This ask informs the staffer of what you would ideally like the member of Congress to do for you. This year at the Legislative Symposium, ASCLS members had three specific asks for Congress:
- Enact the BIO Preparedness Workforce Act of 2021 (H.R. 5602). This bill, introduced by Rep. Trahan (D-MA) on October 15, 2021, makes clinical laboratory technologist and technicians eligible for student loan repayment in exchange for at least three years of service in an underserved area in the areas of bio preparedness and infectious disease.
- Establish a federal grant program to assist schools of allied health in recruiting and retaining clinical laboratory students to improve the availability of these professionals throughout the country. These grants would also be able to assist programs to recruit necessary faculty and provide clinical training necessary to enter the profession.
- Take action to freeze any additional PAMA cuts schedule to take effect on January 1, 2022, and postpone any future cuts until January 1 of the calendar year that begins no sooner than one year after the COVID-19 public health emergency has ended.
You should follow up the ask with a personal story about your experience with the issue to help “bring the issue home” and show how the issues are really affecting people. For example, tell a story about how you had to work mandatory overtime because your lab was short staffed. Or a story about how your lab has had to start sending some tests out because it can no longer afford to maintain that test in-house. Additionally, tell the staffer how these issues affect patient care. It is these stories that will stick with someone and persuade them to take action.
Remember, rarely will any action come out of one email or meeting. When working with Congress it is important to play the long game and not get discouraged. The most important thing you can do is establish a connection with the Congressional office and let them know that you can be a resource to them. Sometimes it can take several follow-up emails or meetings before any real action is taken.
Imagine just how loud our voice would be if all laboratory professionals acted as labvocates. There is power in numbers and the more we share our stories, the more impact we will have. Encourage your laboratory classmates and co-workers to be labvocates with you. The medical laboratory profession is a relatively small profession compared to other health care fields, so it is important that we all partake in advocacy.
If you are interested in being a labvocate, reach out to me for more tips and tricks. I would also love to hear about your experiences as a labvocate as well. You can connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter @StephanieNoblit or via email.
Stephanie Noblit is a legislative attorney for a nonprofit policy organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.