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What I'd Tell a New Member of Congress at the Start of a New Year

January 12, 2015

As if the New Year wasn’t reason enough to reflect on all that happened in 2014, and all that’s ahead in 2015, there’s also a new Congress—the 114th—with more than 60 new members coming to Washington.

Congress’ popularity as measured by public opinion polls is close to an all-time low, and I understand why. The 113th Congress was firmly divided and ultimately accomplished very little. 

This wasn’t because they were lazy, intellectually incurious, or corrupt. From years of working in Washington, I know that’s not true. When you get their attention, most are bright, hardworking, and want to do the right thing. 

My observations align with years of political science research showing most members of Congress are on call 24/7, with only minutes to themselves each day to think and reflect upon their positions before being pulled aside by a constituent, adviser, or colleague.

Unfortunately, the Washington cliché that if you can’t distill your issue to a one-page fact sheet or your message to a 20-second “elevator speech,” you might as well not bother, is accurate. So when I think about what to tell a new member of Congress about academic medicine, time and words are of the essence. I’d want the member to know three key facts:

  • Medical schools and their affiliated teaching hospitals and health systems—academic medical centers (AMCs)—are the indispensable foundations of American health care . They train most of our health care workforce. They care for a disproportionate share of the poorest and most medically challenging patients. They are the standby capacity when disaster strikes, and they are the scientific front lines for medical breakthroughs.
  • In 2014, these institutions demonstrated repeatedly how essential they are and how the public depends on their leadership during local and national emergencies. Consider last year’s crisis in the veterans’ health care system—an enormous physician shortage and appointment delays so long that some veterans reportedly died before they could see a VA specialist. Then there was Ebola, a West African epidemic that evolved into a global threat. In both cases, the nation turned to AMCs—and they were ready to lead with the standby capacity, expertise, research, and dedication to innovation that the crises demanded. In short, when the nation is at its worst, we are at our best.
  • In 2015, AMCs face a host of federal policy challenges that ultimately threaten the core of the American health care system. Federal investment for training our nation’s medical workforce and biomedical research enterprise has stalled and potentially could see reductions this year. That would have serious, long-term, and dangerous implications for patient care and the health and well-being of all of us. AMCs also face a growing number of regulatory policies that, if left unchanged, threaten their ability to innovate.

If, by the end of making these points, I had a couple moments to spare, I would say, “The best way to understand what we do is to see it firsthand. Visit our campuses, and let us show you around.”

Even in small doses, educating lawmakers—especially new ones—should be one of our top priorities, and the start of a new Congress is the perfect place to begin.

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About the Author

Atul Grover, MD, PhD AAMC Executive Vice President

Atul Grover, MD, PhD
AAMC Executive Vice President

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For More Information

Peters Willson
Sr. Specialist, Policy and Constituency Issues
Telephone: 202-862-6029