Friday, December 11, 2009

Lobbyist Working To Help Senior Citizens

Wicked Local Harvard

Deb Thomson knows all the ins and outs of Beacon Hill’s workings.

As a lobbyist for elder care and health care issues, Thomson spends her days working on behalf of a growing senior population. As a founder of The PASS Group, a legislative and administrative advocacy organization working for non-profit companies, Thomson says taking care of all its citizens is what a country should do to its best ability. Laws can get bogged down with words and requirements, but in the end, they need to serve the people in the best way possible.

For instance, Thomson is working hard for the spouses of those who need long-term care and have to put themselves into poverty to get it. A nursing home resident gets a monthly allowance of $72.80 to cover everything Mass Health does not — shoes, clothes, telephone calls, transportation, books or newspapers, said Thomson. It is a figure she finds ridiculous and wants to see increase, but it is a fight to just have it remain steady.

“This is a perilous time for human services because of all the budget cuts,” she said.

For anyone interested in lobbying work, Thomson says a good way to start is to be an aide to a legislator. A determined group of people can make a difference.

Q How did you get started in your career?

A I am an attorney and for many years, I worked as an elder law attorney and in legal services which serves lower income seniors. Part of that developed into legislative advocacy work where you pass bills and legislation that would benefit programs that elders rely on for income and health care purposes.

Q What got you started in elder services and health care?

A When I was in law school I volunteered in a clinic for elder clients. I worked for the Alzheimer’s Association for five years working on public policy. And then I left there and went into a legislative and administrative advocacy business. I had a great interest in the issues that confront the elderly in our society.

Q It sounds like you must have your ears open to everything.

A Well, I also used to work for Massachusetts law reform [agency] for several years that was devoted to advocacy on behalf of lower income people. There is a whole community out there, of which you may not be familiar, advocates and people who work on behalf of clients in nonprofit organizations trying to improve society. It is a real specialized niche in both the political and legal world.

One thing that surprised me was how small town Boston is in these circles. State government is people who change hats occasionally, so you really develop a network.

But my clients are not big corporations; my clients are advocacy groups, some small healthcare providers, and day programs for seniors. For instance, lately, there have been terrible budget cuts and they have affected most of the state-funded elder programs. There is a wait list now for health care services for elders. Councils on Aging, which rely on funding, have been affected.

Q All the cuts often seem harsh — your work must make you feel good.

A Oh, absolutely. I used to do a lot of individual representation, but this is more durable. You can pass a law that affects a lot of people. An example of the kind of issues I work on, the seniors for many years had Medicare, but no prescription drug coverage. There was a constant tension between keeping Medicare affordable and providing drug coverage.

Several years ago, they implemented something called Medicare Part B which is a drug program. But Massachusetts, at that time, had enacted a state-based program so seniors would have coverage. When the Part B coverage went into effect, prescription advantage filled the gap that Part B would not cover.

Q How does a lobbyist help them?

A It is very difficult to get anywhere without professional help. I was just at the Mass Councils of Aging annual conference talking about advocacy and how to get a bill through or how to affect a budget item. If you are just a regular layperson and you can develop a relationship with a legislator, then sometimes they can help you through the process. If you have a lobbyist it is better. If you are in a coalition of many groups, you can get the attention focused on an issue.

Q Do you sometimes feel like the underdog?

A The groups I work with do not have the wherewithal to make campaign donations. We have to make a case on its merits; we can’t make it on the fact that we made campaign donations. It has to be a compelling issue that affects the constituents of legislators and that gets their attention. Most legislators are interested in elders and their issues.

Q And it is a growing field.

A It is going to be interesting because I don’t think the government at the state or federal level is prepared to deal with the needs of baby boomers. People are getting older and saving less. The person who has pension benefits now is a rare bird.

Actually seniors take the worst hit for long-term care. Because nursing homes are not covered by Medicare, except for a very short period of care. People end up spending all but $2,000 of their assets in order to qualify for long-term care. You have to impoverish yourself to get there.

Q Elder care is not always at the forefront.

A Right. There is private long-term care insurance, but there are many problems with it. One is that it is too expensive for many people and many people wait too long until they are sick to buy it and then it is too late.

Q Is that the one thing you would like to see changed the most?

A Adequate coverage for long-term care is right up there. I guess the other thing I would like to see is better state coverage of community-based care. Again it is a question of money.

But people who live alone and are isolated really need those services.

Q How do you lobby?

A One of the important things we do is educate. We educate the legislators about the issues we care about. We educate the public about the issues we care about and we try to, at the same time, we are educating them about the importance of these issues we try to get them to advocate on their behalf.

Q So it changes all the time?

A It does. And it is fascinating. You never know quite what to expect.

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