LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2019 • Volume 09 • Number 06

Trusted Voices for Residents and Clients: Advocacy Success Stories

November 15, 2019 | by Kenya McCullum

How LeadingAge members can be trusted—and effective—voices in advocacy for the people they serve.

As a busy provider, you may not think you have time for advocacy. After all, who has time to regularly go all the way to Washington, DC, or even the state capital, to talk to politicians about their work? And does all of this effort even work? How can you trust that the lawmakers you speak to will actually listen to you or do anything about your concerns?

Advocacy is a worthwhile endeavor that can bring about real change. The following are some advocacy success stories from LeadingAge members and state partners that have been able to make their voices heard—as well as the voices of the people they serve—as they build relationships and trust with politicians and regulators.

Participation and Recognition

LeadingAge Illinois has cultivated advocacy success among its members by continuously encouraging them to keep abreast of the issues that impact providers around the state, while regularly reaching out to legislators—whether it’s by making phone calls, sending letters, or sending emails.

“Grassroots advocacy has been one of our biggest strengths as an association and our members are well-educated on it and participate throughout every legislative session,” says Jason Speaks, manager of policy communications at LeadingAge Illinois.

To further this participation in the legislative process, LeadingAge Illinois’ annual advocacy day allows members from around the state, that represent the entire continuum of care, to congregate at the capital to meet with legislators about key issues that impact providers. And thanks to these efforts, senior care professionals were able to reap huge rewards.

“Based on the hard-hitting advocacy that our members did in Springfield and then back when they were in their home districts calling their legislators, and then our staff’s negotiations with legislators, we were able to get $240 million in skilled nursing Medicaid funding,” Speaks says. “Also, because of our lobbying and advocacy with members on the minimum wage impacts, the state budget did include $38.2 million to assist Medicaid providers with the first-year minimum wage increase. It was the result of a lot of grassroots lobbying and advocacy efforts by our provider members.”

Karen Messer, left, president and CEO of LeadingAge
Illinois, with U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley and Susan Sinderson,
EVP/COO of Embrace Living Communities.

And this LeadingAge state partner doesn’t only encourage its membership to engage in productive grassroots advocacy, it also recognizes legislators who share their mission and have gained the trust of the community by working to contribute to it. Since 2006, the Partners in Quality Award has been given to politicians who have gone above and beyond in helping advance quality care and services for seniors. Most recently, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL-5) received the award for his work as a champion for seniors for many years—including his help in securing an expansion of the RAD for PRAC program, which provides funding for affordable senior housing. In addition, Quigley has regularly been vocal about the need for senior housing and other vital services.

“Any time a legislator at the national level is speaking out on behalf of senior housing, we see it as a great accomplishment because there’s such a great need with the explosion of the older adult population and there’s just not enough out there,” says Speaks. “If there’s a legislator promoting funding or anything that is positive in the outcome for senior housing, we will recognize that person.”

In order to see similar results in their own states, Speaks encourages all LeadingAge members to engage in advocacy work—even if they have reservations about getting involved.

“We always say that the work of our members statewide makes a huge impact on public policy issues that affect you and your fellow providers, so it’s imperative that you continue to make your voice, your staff’s voice, and your residents’ voices heard to legislators because it’s always going to make a positive impact,” he says. “A collective voice is a lot stronger than a single voice, so we always try to push that message with our members.”

Advocacy Champions Needed

LeadingAge members have been working hard to help cultivate advocacy relationships, and there is now an exciting new program, called Advocacy Champions, that can help LeadingAge members, their employees, and their residents and clients be active advocates.

We hope that everyone will be an Advocacy Champion for aging policy and now, more than ever, we need to use our collective voice to make change.

To learn more about public policy and about becoming an Advocacy Champion, visit www.leadingage.org/advocacychampions to find fun and easy resources for becoming an advocate for change in your community.

Contributed by Joe Franco, LeadingAge Vice President of Grassroots. Contact Franco at jfranco@leadingage.org.

A Productive Conversation

When a former member of her board suggested that she contact U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (R-VA) to arrange a visit to her community, Jeannie Shiley, president and CEO at Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury (SVWC) in Winchester, VA, jumped at the chance to host a town hall meeting.

After working closely with his staff liaison, Sen. Warner visited SVWC to discuss various issues with the employees and residents, including rising medical costs, electronic records, affordable housing for seniors, and HIPAA concerns.

“We covered a lot of different topics when he was here that morning,” Shiley says. “His interaction was just so positive with them, so they really enjoyed the opportunity to meet him and have the chance to talk with him and ask him some pretty tough questions.”

This is just one advocacy effort that Shiley has engaged in. She makes a point of staying active by heeding the calls to action that come from LeadingAge, attending rallies, and addressing different state subcommittees on topics that relate to older adults. For her, advocacy is all about providers having an honest and open conversation—which can go a long way toward building a mutual relationship of trust.

“I feel strongly that collectively, our voices do make a difference, but we have to make sure that we’re using those voices in order to be heard,” says Shiley. “There has to be trust on both sides, but it all boils down to the truth—you just have to speak the truth and give them facts, and then you have to trust that they’re going to do the right thing with that information.”

Telling a Community’s Story

Around 8 years ago, Courtney Nuzzo, executive director at The Lewinsville Retirement Residence in McLean, VA, attended her first advocacy activity in Washington, DC, through LeadingAge. It was such an empowering experience that she makes a point of participating every time the opportunity arises—and in fact, this year she got the chance to speak at the Senior Housing NOW Rally, held May 8 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, with over 1,000 people in attendance.

“I was honored and pleased to be selected and asked to do it,” Nuzzo says.

During the Senior Housing NOW rally, with members of Congress in attendance, Nuzzo discussed how important it is to preserve affordable housing for seniors, even when nonprofit organizations that have paid off their mortgages are faced with the tough decision of whether or not they want to continue providing this invaluable service to the community.

Nuzzo plans to continue speaking the truth about the field whenever she has the chance, and she thinks that even people who are reluctant about speaking on these issues publicly should give it a try, because sharing stories is a powerful way to reach lawmakers.

“Sometimes it’s like your first day of school or your first day at a new job. Any time you have any interaction with people you don’t know for the first time, there’s some anxiety, so remember that these folks are just people too—even though they’re in the big marble buildings,” says Nuzzo. “As providers, we are entrusted with people’s lives—many times at the end of their lives and certainly at the sunset of their life—and I think that since you are entrusted with their lives, you have a responsibility to build that trust with the people in the political realm who have the opportunity, ability, and funding to help you take care of these folks and allow them to maintain their dignity as they grow older.”

How Building Key Relationships Pays Off

Smith Senior Living, Chicago, IL, has made it a priority to build strong relationships with state representatives. For years, the life plan community’s President and CEO, Kevin McGee, has invited politicians to visit the campus in order to tour the building and meet the staff and residents. In addition, McGee takes regular trips to the capital for dinners with his state representatives in order to discuss what’s going on in the legislature and how that impacts his organization’s ability to provide services to seniors in the area.

“I find that local politicians are very interested in what we do and how we serve the community,” McGee says. “They recognize that seniors vote and they recognize there’s a captive audience in a life plan community. Also, life plan communities have a good reputation in the areas we serve, so politicians are very receptive to affiliating with our organization.”

Thanks to this affiliation, Smith Senior Living was able to increase its ability to serve seniors in the community. When it sought approval from the state for an expansion project that would allow it to meet the area’s growing demand for rehabilitation treatment—with only 16 rehab beds, they were forced to turn away 20 to 25 referrals weekly—the politicians McGee had built a rapport with were happy to write letters of support to bolster its application. These letters, along with support from residents’ family members, along with local hospitals and clergy, helped the organization move forward with its expansion, which will go a long way toward providing a much-needed service.

McGee suggests that other LeadingAge members make it a point to establish long-term relationships with their local lawmakers, so they are well-aware of the good work they do and the challenges they face. This will make it easier to get the help they need when an important issue arises.

“Establish a relationship before you need them,” he says. “If they know you, have a comfort level with you, and appreciate how the organization serves the community, I think they would be much more willing to step up to support whatever project you have given the established relationship.”

Kenya McCullum is a writer who lives in San Francisco, CA.