LeadingAge Magazine · January-February 2018 • Volume 08 • Number 01

Advocacy Success Stories: Making an Impact

January 19, 2018 | by Gene Mitchell

Visibility, ingenuity, relationships and partnerships make advocacy successful, as 2 LeadingAge state partners recently demonstrated. Also included: a talk with LeadingAge’s new vice president, grassroots, about his mandate to create a sustainable grassroots advocacy program.

The green hats won the day on Oct. 24 in Oklahoma City.

In August, a new state cigarette tax, expected to raise about $215 million, was struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which ruled it unconstitutional.

Oklahoma State Capitol photo
The Oklahoma State Capitol building was filled to overflowing on Oct. 24 by green-hatted people rallying against dramatic funding cuts to services for seniors and the disabled. Photo courtesy of Randy Tate.


The tax revenue was to be used to fund Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

The Court’s decision meant trouble for the state’s aging services providers, who faced the elimination of funding for the ADvantage Medicaid Home and Community-Based Waiver program, adult day services, and other cuts to mental health and disability services.

“Several provider types got together: mental health, aging services, developmental disabilities, nurses and hospitals,” says Mary Brinkley, executive director of LeadingAge Oklahoma. “We put together a rally in 36 hours.”

On Oct. 24, the effort bore fruit when at least 11,000 people gathered at the Oklahoma State Capitol to rally against the cuts.

“Everyone descended on the capitol, and finally the Capital Sergeant and the fire marshal said we had exceeded the 9,000-person capacity,” says Brinkley. Another 2,000 participants had to stay outside the building.

The crowd was distinguished by the green hats that LeadingAge Oklahoma had shipped in.

“This was really interesting because it wasn’t just providers,” says Brinkley. “They were families, people who need mental health services, and the general public. People from all walks of life showed up. This is the third year in a row of a big budget shortfall. We were afraid lives would be lost. The message is, if it’s important and will affect lives, people will need to know about it and will be there. If we don’t get out and do something about this, these cuts will happen.”

It wasn’t only those who attended the rally that made a difference. The families of adult day participants called legislators to make their case. Resident groups at a number of life plan communities organized daily calls to legislators.

“All of our members were involved, even if they weren’t affected,” Brinkley adds.

The rally attracted news coverage and afterwards, Gov. Mary Fallin announced that the cuts would not be made. (The legislature is now in special session.)

“We’re all so bad about telling these stories, but we must [do so] because they can give others hope,” says Brinkley. “People can do these exact same things. This didn’t take months or weeks of preparation.”

Site Visits Change Minds

In Virginia, LeadingAge members showed how arranging one-on-one site visits with a legislator can make all the difference in changing minds.

Spurred by a constituent’s concerns about an assisted living community, Virginia State Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg) introduced a resolution to conduct a study on staffing ratios in assisted living and special care units.

LeadingAge Virginia photo
Virginia State Sen. Rosalyn Dance visits Little Sisters of the
Poor’s St. Joseph’s Home in Richmond, VA, in August 2017.
Site visits with a group of LeadingAge Virginia members
demonstrated the quality and value of nonprofit assisted living

“We invited Sen. Dance, who is a nurse, to go on a tour of some of our assisted living communities,” says Melissa Andrews, LeadingAge Virginia’s president and CEO. “Throughout the day, it became clear that the issue wasn’t a staffing problem but it was about acuity—in other words, a person not being in the right setting.

Dance, along with representatives from the Department of Social Services and Joint Commission on Health Care, toured 4 LeadingAge Virginia members in the Richmond area: Little Sisters of the Poor’s St. Joseph’s Home, St. Mary’s Woods, Lakewood and Saint Francis Home.

“We included residents and board members in the visits,” says Andrews. “At Little Sisters of the Poor, one board member is a former state senator who knows Sen. Dance.”

“In November, they decided not to move on staffing ratios, but they may increase the Auxiliary Grant rate, which is an income supplement for eligible residents residing in assisted living in Virginia,” Andrews adds. “They are also taking steps to enable the Department of Social Services to bring their technology into the 21st century.”

For LeadingAge Virginia, an old lesson was reinforced.

“Get these elected officials into your communities as often as possible," says Andrews. "We have a lot of new legislators and we need to reach out so they understand who our members are, and what it means to be a nonprofit. And … getting family members, residents and board members involved makes a huge difference too.”

Editor’s note: Thanks to Dana Parsons, vice president & legislative counsel for LeadingAge Virginia, for contributing information to this article.

A New Position Adds Grassroots Expertise to LeadingAge

In its efforts to strengthen its grassroots advocacy, LeadingAge recently hired a veteran grassroots advocacy organizer, Joe Franco, to fill the new position of vice president, grassroots. We spoke with Franco for insights on how grassroots advocacy can meet the mission of LeadingAge and help members maximize their impact as advocates.

LeadingAge: Can you tell us about your background in grassroots advocacy?

Joe Franco: I started my career doing political campaigning in Colorado, then embarked on a journey working for patient advocacy organizations including the American Cancer Society, the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Diabetes Association, helping them activate their members to tell members of Congress and state legislators to help people with specific policy priorities, much like LeadingAge does.

LeadingAge: Can you tell us about the new position that’s been created for you, and why LeadingAge has taken this step?

Joe Franco: The leadership of LeadingAge smartly decided to elevate the position of grassroots advocacy to a new vice president level, and we will build a team to enhance and multiply our grassroots advocacy efforts. With more than 6,000 members, and with residents in the hundreds of thousands, we have a great opportunity to activate our own internal grassroots network to meet with members of Congress, state legislators and other elected officials to change policies for older Americans and ensure that our voices are heard.

Never before have we been under attack like we are now. It’s been inspiring to see that in the last two months of 2017 we had over 10,000 actions taken: More than 6,000 members have either called or emailed members of Congress to talk about the tax bill and its implications and because of their efforts we were able to save many important provisions in the tax bill. I see us moving forward to have many more important battles to face, and needing to activate our networks to ensure we’re protecting our communities and giving them the support they need.

LeadingAge: What will an enhanced grassroots program look like, and how can it be sustained?

Joe Franco: LeadingAge has taken this important step to elevate the grassroots program so that it can be better sustained. The goal is to have advocacy last throughout the year, rather than being episodic. With an enhanced grassroots program, the goal is to have members and residents and the general public joining our efforts to ensure that our legislative and regulatory priorities are passed and protected with this current Congress and administration. The way to sustain it is to create a program everyone is excited about, and to recognize the tremendous work already happening among our members. In my short time here, I’ve already seen that our members are hosting members of Congress, making phone calls and sending emails. One of my main goals is to be able to report and catalog all the great work that’s happening so advocates are recognized for what they’re doing.

We have a commitment from the board and the CEO to make grassroots advocacy an important pillar of what we do at LeadingAge, and it will be sustained by everyone joining our program, activating our membership as well as residents, and getting everyone excited about the important things we’re doing.

We want to use our PEAK Leadership Summit as a springboard and launching point for advocacy efforts throughout the year, and I’m looking forward to having hundreds of members come to DC and have hundreds of meetings on Capitol Hill, and then transform that energy into a continual wave of grassroots advocacy throughout the country, in the hopes of having meetings both at our communities back home and other local events to keep up that momentum. The goal, by next fall, is to have hundreds of meetings as well at the local community level, not just here in DC.

LeadingAge: What issues will take priority in 2018? Which of them are particularly well-suited to a strong grassroots approach?

Joe Franco: The biggest issue we’ll confront right away is what they’re calling entitlement reform, which is a nice way of saying they want to cut Medicare and Medicaid benefits for folks that have earned those entitlements to those great lifesaving programs, and we may even see changes to Social Security. Those things were for a long time called the “third rail of politics” because if any politician touched them they would lose their jobs, and I never thought we’d be in a position of having to stand up and fight to protect these vital programs. I know our members and residents will be united in our campaign to protect these very important programs to ensure all our members are living happy and fulfilling lives, and any cuts to these programs would be devastating to older adults and their families.

I know these will be the focus of our activities out of the gate, but we’ll also be very concerned about affordable housing for seniors and making sure HUD is working to protect and grow those programs. We’ll keep working on ways to ensure access to technology for older adults, and of course we want to eliminate the regulatory burdens our members face so they can continue to provide the right care for residents and families, and at the same time not be overburdened by an administration that has promised they want to reduce regulations; we want to hold them to that promise.

LeadingAge: Any grassroots program must include, by definition, activity on the part of LeadingAge members. What will we ask of them, and what support can we provide to help make their advocacy more effective?

Joe Franco: The biggest ask at the moment is to make sure they join us in those campaigns to protect Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and fight for more affordable senior housing.

When we send an action alert, we’re asking members to forward it to everyone in their networks and to encourage their staff and residents to act on it. We’re also asking members to send people to PEAK.

After PEAK, we’re asking members to work on ways to meet members of Congress and local communities to really tell their story. The only way we’ll protect and advance these vital programs is by sharing our stories and letting them know the programs lead to everyone having much more fulfilling and happier lives—and that cutting them would be devastating for our older Americans.

The support we’ll provide will include simple-to-use toolkits. I want to have more visual products, such as infographics, that can easily explain complex things. I also would like to see a social media approach from LeadingAge that will help us amplify our message, not just to members but to the public about the devastating effects of not protecting Social Security or Medicaid and Medicare, or of fighting for affordable senior housing.

I’m open to anything that’s needed on our end, and I want members to know I’m a more than willing partner to help them build upon our great grassroots successes.

LeadingAge: How will you coordinate our efforts with our state partners?

Joe Franco: I’m looking forward to coordinating our advocacy and grassroots efforts with our state partners—which is not to say that it hasn’t happened before, but we can amplify our voice and prove to elected officials that we’re united and will make big efforts to save these programs. It is inspiring to work with state executives and members and their residents to let them know about the importance and power of their voices, that their stories are vital to moving these priorities. A top priority is to collaborate with our state partners and members to create easy to use tools that can make these campaigns fun and engaging while helping to move our mission forward.

I’m excited; I have a passion for ensuring that older adults get the care and the lives they deserve, and I’m anxious to work with state partners and members to find out the great things they’re doing, and to provide a catalyst to help them do even more during this very important time.

Joe Franco can be reached at jfranco@leadingage.org or 202-508-9442.


Gene Mitchell is editor of LeadingAge magazine.