Meet Melissa Bartlett, Health Policy Veteran

Over the course of her 20-plus years in Washington, Melissa Bartlett has worked on nearly every kind of health policy issue, ranging from Medicare to prescription drugs.  She draws on her experience with insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and two branches of government to help clients achieve their goals and navigate the legislative and regulatory landscape.  We spoke with Melissa about her various roles and some great advice that’s proven helpful in her career.

What are some of the highlights of your career?

After graduating from the University of Kentucky College of Law and doing a fellowship with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, I took a job as legislative counsel with the American Medical Group Association and then later with AHIP (which was then AAHP) in regulatory policy. Both of these positions served as good primers on health care policy and allowed me to really understand the healthcare ecosystem – how health care services are access by patients and how those providing services are ultimately paid for their services and all of the specific policy levers that are at play along the way.  I then moved on to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights, where I focused on implementation of the HIPAA privacy rule and issues pertaining to it. .  In 2004, I left HHS and joined the House Energy and Commerce Committee staff as the Medicare counsel for Republicans, where I remained until 2010.  The committee has enormous health care jurisdiction so while my main focus was on Medicare legislative and regulatory policies, throughout the years I also had the privilege to work on a variety of other health care issues concerning health insurance reforms, mental health parity, privacy, quality incentives and value-based payment reforms, health IT, and the reauthorization of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, to name a few.  After I left the committee, I spent several years working as an in-house lobbyist for two drug companies and large health insurer before joining the Chamber Hill Strategies team. 

How has advocacy changed since you first started your career?  How has advocacy changed over the last 10 years?

You cannot discount the value of innovative technology and being able to effectively communicate with the Hill.  When I started my career, one of the first things I got was a beeper, so if you had to reschedule a meeting, you had to leave a pager number.  That over time evolved into the use of the Blackberry, which was first issued to me when I was first on the Hill.  The way we’ve done business has changed to become so much more instantaneous, whether it’s emailing somebody documents, sending a calendar invitation, or sending a text message.  The nature of the work has changed thanks to technology, and it will continue to evolve. 

Within the last 10 years, I do think there has been a shift in appreciation in advocacy being more than just getting someone a meeting.  In the past, people might have measured success in lobbying in terms of how many members and staff a lobbyist knows.  Now, clients are more focused on wanting a more substantive relationship with their lobbyist in that they want the lobbyist to understand their business, understand risk and opportunities to hit strategic objectives, and to provide advice.  The bar has shifted, and that’s a good thing. 

What are some of the biggest challenges lobbyists and advocates face in 2021?

A return to a post-COVID normalcy, however that is defined, and adjusting to that new normal presents a challenge.  Pre-COVID, we were meeting with people face-to-face in congressional offices, agency meeting rooms, and in the cafeterias in the House and Senate office buildings.  Casual information-gathering as well as the more formalized lobbying has really changed.  While offices and buildings continue to reopen, challenges remain, for instance, whether and when to pursue in-person meetings versus virtual meetings or calls. There are some benefits to the virtual meeting or call in terms of expediency and efficiency.   So, I think navigating that return to normalcy will be the big challenge for 2021.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received?

Take every meeting requested of you, and return every phone call, even if it’s not right away.  No matter how busy you are, this town remembers.  A lot of what we do is relies heavily on reputation and relationships.  It’s critical to maintain a level of respect for your colleagues and to command that respect too.  You may not get an answer right away, but you sure do appreciate when you hear back from someone.  Fostering such respect can go a long way in serving as a trusted resource for colleagues, clients and the Hill.   

What else should we know about you?

I’m a mother of a rising first grader and I’m a co-leader of a daisy troop. I play the piano, which I’ve been doing since second grade, and at one point, I wanted to study the piano in college and play professionally.  I have a dog and a cat, both of whom I rescued.  I like spending time with my family, and I value my roles as a mother, wife, sister, sister-in-law, and daughter.

How to Rock the Virtual Hill Meeting

With things opening up soon, staff and members of Congress whom we talk to anticipate virtual meetings will continue.  This is because virtual meetings allow more efficient use of time for the members and staff, as well as the potential for greater participation from constituents and advocates who can’t travel to DC.  While not great for relationship building, virtual advocacy can be productive and definitely worth the time and effort.

Here are some tips —-

  • Platform choice goes to the member of Congress or staff.  Unlike most other professional settings, Hill still prefers telephone so don’t be surprised.  While more and more offices on Capitol Hill have adopted videoconferencing as their go-to platform for meetings, some individual staffers prefer phone calls.  Whatever the case, let the congressional staffer decide the best way to conduct a virtual meeting.
  • Send materials ahead of time.  3-4 page powerpoints are great.  You can email other advocacy papers too as attachments, but don’t except the people you’re meeting with to read it all ahead of time.
  • Use visual aids.  Don’t simply email a congressional staffer the handouts you’d otherwise share during an in-person meeting.  If you’re using a videoconferencing platform to conduct a meeting, there are more opportunities to convey your message, whether it be through images, a PowerPoint presentation, or videos.
  • Location, location, location.   With a virtual meeting, you have the chance to bring a legislator or a staffer into your world.  Consider broadcasting your virtual meeting from a safe location that helps to tell your story or convey your message.  For example, if you’re a health care provider, consider participating in a virtual meeting from your workplace, whether it be a hospital or another medical setting.  
  • Plan ahead and select a “meeting captain.”  Plan ahead what to say – it will make the virtual visit go smoother.  Create a few simple talking points, 3-4 messages you can make sure get across in your conversation.  If your virtual meeting contains multiple advocates, give each individual specific messages or issues to discuss so that everyone’s voice is heard.  If your meeting contains more than three advocates, consider designating someone as a “meeting captain” to introduce all participants and steer the overall conversation. 
  • Check your tech!  Familiarize yourself with Zoom and whichever other platforms you may be using to ensure that your message isn’t held back by any technical difficulties.  Make sure all links work appropriately and your devices handle whichever virtual meeting platforms you may be using.   If you supplied the dial-in number, check to see if you sent the correct passcode.

Even when the pandemic subsides, virtual meetings are likely to continue to play a role in advocacy.  Advocates who would otherwise be unable to travel to a legislator’s office due to geography or scheduling conflicts can make a difference by connecting virtually.  In time, virtual meetings may complement in-person meetings and serve to strengthen an overall advocacy message.

Meet Deema Tarazi, Spartan and Health Care Advocate

Blog Post Draft: Meet Deema Tarazi, Spartan and Health Care Advocate (4/27/2021)

Having joined Chamber Hill Strategies in March 2021, Deema Tarazi draws from her background in advocating for maternal health policies and patient protections to help clients connect the dots in Washington.  During our conversation, Deema recounted her experience defending the Affordable Care Act (ACA) from attempts to repeal and replace the law in 2017, as well as her observations on the differences between state and local advocacy.

What are some of the highlights of your career?

I started my career in 2016 around the time when the Trump Administration and Republican-controlled Congress began their efforts to repeal and replace the ACA.  I had the opportunity to work with organizations for rare diseases and chronic conditions to lobby in support of key ACA provisions, such as Medicaid expansion and protections for those with preexisting conditions.  Later, at March of Dimes, I was working on extending Medicaid postpartum coverage from 60 days to one year, which I was happy to see that this policy was included in the American Rescue Plan. 

What prompted you to transition your career ambitions from law to advocacy?

Initially, I was interested in pursuing legal services, namely focusing on immigration law.  During my second year at the Michigan State University College of Law, I participated in a program that allows students to come to Washington, DC for a semester.  I always wanted to explore DC, and I was fortunate to be placed with the Hemophilia Federation of America (HFA) under the mentorship of a Michigan State law school alumna.  From my experiences working with legislators and advocates, and learning about policymaking, I fell in love with federal government affairs.  When I returned to law school, I set my sights on coming back to DC, and I was fortunate to be hired for a full-time position at HFA after graduation. 

What are some of the biggest challenges lobbyists and advocates face in 2021?

Lobbying is a face-to-face career.  Being in a room and talking to people is the best way to gauge people’s reactions.  The pandemic has really changed the way we communicate with and build relationships with people.  Since there are no opportunities to bump into someone in the hallway or meet them for coffee, you really are relying on email, texting, and calling.  That said, technology has made the advocacy process more inclusive, and advocates who previously couldn’t travel to Washington are now able to connect virtually with members of Congress and their staff.

How is state government advocacy different from federal government advocacy? 

State and local lobbying is different because some of the people who serve in state and local government serve part-time, and they are more connected to the daily coming and goings of the community. This creates the opportunity for more “personal touches,” and you can more effectively leverage advocates’ relationships with state and local lawmakers than you can federal lawmakers Additionally, each state has their own set of lobbying rules, so it was always important to review the laws to ensure compliance.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received?

“Always remember why you started.” I relied heavily on this advice while studying for the bar and it has carried over into all aspects of my life. I find that it is important to keep everything in perspective, which sometimes can get lost as thing constantly change as we face difficult challenges, but usually the reasons of why we started doing something do not change.  This motivates me to keep moving forward no matter how difficult a challenge may seem to be.

What else should we know about you?

I’m a proud double-Spartan, meaning I went to Michigan State University for undergraduate and law school, and I love watching games during football and basketball season. Staying connected to the Michigan State community is important to me and there is even a restaurant in DC that I use to go to before the pandemic which hosts all DC Spartans during game days.

I’m also an avid reader – I do not have a favorite book – but anything with the typical love storyline I do enjoy. In 2019 I hit my reading goal of reading 60 books in a year and my favorite book that year was Educated by Tara Westover, a moving memoir about her life.

I’ve become more interested in activities outdoors like hiking and exploring parks since the pandemic started. I look forward to traveling to some of the national parks out West as I have yet to explore the Grand Canyon.

Meet Ariel Gonzalez, Advocacy Expert and Basketball Coach

Ariel Gonzalez, one of the newest team members at Chamber Hill Strategies, has seen the advocacy landscape change considerably over the course of his 20-year career in Washington.  Each of Ariel’s accomplishments has provided countless learning opportunities that he uses to help clients achieve their goals.  We talked to Ariel about what he’s learned and about how his passions for basketball and martial arts keep him grounded. 

What are some of the highlights of your career? 

In my six years at AARP when I ran their health and family team on the federal level, I was able to prevent Medicare beneficiaries from paying more in out-of-pocket costs.  I’m really proud of being able to hold the line and protect tens of millions of Medicare beneficiaries from harmful proposals.  A little later in my career, I led and coordinated an effort to get substantial mental health and substance use disorder reform as a part of the first 21st Century Cures Act when I was Chief of Government Relations at the American Psychiatric Association.  It was wonderful to collaborate with some of the other large mental health organizations, like the American Psychological Association, Mental Health America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and others to advocate for substantive change in terms of how mental health and substance abuse is addressed.  

How has advocacy changed since you first started your career?  How has advocacy changed over the last 10 years?

Advancements in technology as they relate to grassroots advocacy have been outstanding over the last 20 years.  When I started the health care portion of my career in 2002 at Premier, Inc., the advocacy tools we had then were so elementary compared to the sophistication of grassroots advocacy tools that we have available today.  Within the last 10 years, the ability to have microtargeted messaging to legislators in real-time such as social media messages have been key.  Before, we had to rely on letter-writing, which transitioned to faxing, and then emailing.  Today, social media plays a huge role in everything we do, including digital advocacy from grassroots and grasstops perspectives that allows organizations to move the needle with legislators in real-time via targeted messaging.

What are some of the biggest challenges lobbyists and advocates face in 2021?

You can’t speak about advocacy in 2021 without speaking about the pandemic.  The transition to virtual advocacy was a significant challenge in 2020, and in 2021, I think most lobbyists and Hill staff have begun to understand that this is the new normal.  Certain Hill staff have even expressed they would like this to continue with virtual advocacy post-pandemic because they think it accelerates efficiencies in meetings and helps with their schedules.

On another note, I’d say another huge challenge in 2021 is the hyperpartisanship that is evident on Capitol Hill.  Over the last several years, it’s just gotten uglier and uglier between the parties.  I was just reading something from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) where he was expressing concern in the House that even broadly supported, bipartisan bills that should be voted on under suspension are now being called out to do roll call votes just to be a thorn in the side of the majority.  That’s why as a lobbyist, I work to leverage our relationships in a way that benefits clients in this partisan environment. 

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received?

“The only thing constant in life is change.”  I use that as a mantra to continuously evolve as a person, a lobbying professional, a father, a husband, and as a contributing member of society.  Being able to understand the dynamic of things in Washington – the power changes, power shifts, being able to roll with the punches – is really critical.  The ability to believe in yourself has really been something that I hold close as I faced various challenges. 

What else should we know about you?

I’ve coached both youth and high school basketball since 2003.  I love to play when I can and teach my knowledge of the game to the kids.

I’ve also dabbled over the years in acting, both on stage and on screen as a way to develop tools to become a better public speaker.  Speaking publicly to strangers translates well in terms of performing live on a stage or in front of a camera. 

Finally, I’m a big martial arts guy.  I’ve been studying and training various martial arts on and off since the age of 5, and I’ve coached martial arts, too.  I definitely enjoy it, and it’s really helpful in a number of circumstances in life – from learning discipline when I was younger to feeling confident in handling myself in a variety of situations.

HELP Hearing Explores Ways to Rebuild Public Health Workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic represents an “unmitigated attack” on providers and first responders, which has left workers “fatigued emotionally and physically” according to public health experts at a March 9 hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on the COVID-19 response.

The nation’s public health system had been “hollowed out over the past 10 years” said Ashish Jha (Brown University) due to years of underinvestment and chronic personnel shortages.  

As a result, the challenges facing front-line health care workers according to Mary Ann Fuchs (Duke University) include a lack of access to personal protective equipment, confusion over changing policies, and exhaustion from surge staffing.  Fuchs also described the growing toll on health care workers’ emotional well-being due to fears of exposing family members to the virus and the trauma of constantly treating critically ill patients.  Washington State Secretary of Health Umair Shah similarly observed “compassion fatigue” among behavioral health providers as they face their own mental health pressures, and he noted outdated information technology systems such as faxes have complicated workers’ response efforts.  The result of these pressures, explained Fuchs, is the exacerbation of high rates of depression, burnout, addiction, and suicide among providers that existed before COVID-19.  As a consequence, Fuchs said the pandemic threatens to increase already-high turnover rates among health care workers.

To tackle stressors on the health workforce, the panelists recommended:

  • greater access to behavioral health resources that provide assessment and short-term counseling for providers
  • more support of workplace violence initiatives
  • new ways for paying primary care physicians
  • focus on diversity and equity to ensure workers represent the communities they serve
  • expansion of the public health workforce to include specialists and paraprofessionals

The panel underscored that rebuilding the nation’s public health system is essential to prepare for the next pandemic.  As described by Jha, economic development, climate change, and globalization are thrusting the world into a new “age of pandemics,” which underscores the need to continue to invest in the public health workforce even after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends. 

Chamber Hill Strategies Introduces “That Said”

Harry Truman famously said that if you want a friend in Washington, then you should get a dog.  That said, if you want to know what’s going on in Washington, then here’s your blog.
Welcome to the blog series by Chamber Hill Strategies called “That Said.”  Our blog focuses on what we do best –

  • telling you the latest about health care policymaking in DC
  • giving you insights into what’s happening and why it matters, and
  • sharing with you our proven methods to make you more effective advocates. 

We opened our firm 10 years ago, right after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.  Since then, we’ve had 3 Presidents, 5 confirmed HHS Secretaries, 6 congressional sessions, and divided and unified party power along the way.  All throughout, Chamber Hill Strategies has kept our clients up-to-speed and ahead-of-the-curve.

A lot has changed in 10 years, but the need for information, insight, and practical and actionable advice hasn’t.

So welcome to “That Said” by Chamber Hill Strategies.  We may not be able to find you a dog, but we are pretty sure you’ll find a blog worth reading.