Health professionals harness the power of their voices

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Protecting our patients, our professions and our community was the theme of the AFT Nurses and Health Professionals' 2017 Professional Issues Conference. That theme is more than a slogan, AFT Vice President Candice Owley said in her opening address on June 1 to the hundreds of nurses and health professionals in attendance.

"We are in a fight to make healthcare truly a right in this country. People are worried about what's going to happen with healthcare. These people are our patients, our neighbors and our members, and they will look to you for advice," said Owley, who leads the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

Sean Hinga

"We can't get distracted by what's happening with this administration," she cautioned. "You need to be educated to the facts and lead on healthcare, and our union can provide you with the resources to inform your community members on what they can do in this fight. We will not let them go quietly into the night. We must make our voices heard."

The call for health professionals to harness the power of their voices for high-quality, affordable healthcare was echoed throughout the two-day conference in Washington, D.C.

"People are looking for you to speak out"

"Your activism and leadership will make a huge difference," said pollster Celinda Lake, who presented data on how to gain support on healthcare and especially the Affordable Care Act. "As healthcare professionals, you have unbelievable credibility. You should be speaking to changes in the ACA and healthcare in general because the policies you support and the solutions you are proposing are significantly more popular than that of those who oppose you."

Lake noted that social media is a good way to influence what people think about when it comes to healthcare. "You have to use social media to get the real news out and tell people what's really happening," said Lake. "Whether you are at a town hall, writing a letter to a member of Congress or just speaking at the family dinner table, remember that you have credibility with others. Use your voice, use your influence."

Sean Hinga (pictured above), program director at the State Innovation Exchange, agreed with the idea of members voicing their opinion on the ACA. He also discussed how members could protect the law at the state level. "People are looking for you to speak out and talk to your neighbors and friends. Take your energy and turn it into action."

He also called on the healthcare members to get personal. "Telling stories has an effect. You don't need to know all the answers; you just need to know your story and how it will impact others."

Patricia Polansky challenged the participants to think more clearly about how to approach the issue in the current environment. "People are now fixated on the demonized ACA, but not on where healthcare is moving as a result," said Polansky, who is director of program development and implementation at the Center to Champion Nursing in America. "You now have an opportunity to strategically move with a specific goal in mind." Polansky encouraged participants not to be afraid of failure but to work with others. "In your fight to improve healthcare, bring other people with you. Engaging partners is the name of the game today—that's what's going to lift this issue up and out."

Fight stigma with science

Every day, AFT members are fighting back against the scourge of opioid addiction and its unacceptable toll on American families and communities. Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's commissioner of health, who is nationally known for her innovative programs to tackle the problem in her city, addressed the crisis.

Dr. Leana Wen

"We're all on the frontlines trying to do the right thing," Wen told participants. "What bothers me when it comes to the opioid epidemic is the number of people dying from overdose. Patients come in seeking help for their addiction, but we don't see addiction in the same way as we do other medical emergencies."

To Wen (pictured above), drug addiction is a disease just like heart disease. But not everyone thinks like Wen. "It's time to be honest about the stigma of addiction. When the individuals who are dying are poor or from the inner city, then addiction is a choice or a moral failing." The conversation around addiction is changing, she said, "but we need to be honest about where we came from. Now that people who are dying are from suburban and rural areas and are wealthy and white, suddenly it's a disease where you can check yourself in and get treatment."

Last year, Wen issued a blanket prescription throughout Baltimore for naloxone, the lifesaving heroin overdose antidote. "Since that time, we have saved over 800 lives in our city. We should be able to get this medication in everyone's hands."

We must fight stigma with science, said Wen. "The stigma of addiction causes some to say, 'Why give naloxone; it will only make people use heroin more.' That's like saying, 'Why administer an EpiPen for a peanut allergy; it'll make them eat more peanuts.' I hear this rhetoric all the time. It doesn't make sense, and it's not based on science."

Wen noted that Baltimore was one of the first to start a needle exchange program in the city. In 1994, the rate of HIV from IV drug use was 63 percent; by 2014, it was 7 percent. "We need to talk about those numbers. In a time when our core values are being threatened, we have to talk about science. We need to talk about the impact on people."

Wen also offered this advice in the fight against the opioid epidemic: follow evidence-based practice, change our language when it comes to addiction, and call people out when they use rhetoric that isn't true or when they don't follow up talk with action. "This is the time for us on the frontline to fight."

"If we talk about our values, people are with us"

"When I walked in here, the energy from the room and the conference was incredible," AFT President Randi Weingarten said during the closing session. "There is something happening within our membership. There is something happening on the ground, not to take anything for granted anymore, and to do something about it. We do who we are. Don't let others define us."

Randi Weingarten

Weingarten told members that she felt optimistic about the future. "At the very important moment that we must save healthcare, we are breaking through and fighting against issues like medical debt and staffing and doing it in the halls of Congress. When we go to the halls of Congress, the staff and lawmakers are listening from top to bottom."

"That's the energy moving forward," said Weingarten. "There is a connection you are making on the ground, where people understand—if we talk to them and engage them and look them in the eye—that someone has their back. That's why people are organizing with us."

Weingarten noted that President Trump's 2018 budget proposal and the Republicans' healthcare bill that passed the House are clear examples of the effort to strip working people and their families of their basic rights. Trump's plan makes massive cuts to Medicaid, college loans, public schools and other programs, while the healthcare bill could kick 23 million people off their insurance and reduce coverage for millions more. "This administration is doing things that fly in the face of what the public says it wants because the administration thinks it can get away with it. But the polls show that a majority oppose these cuts to the budget and the ACA."

"This is what I see," Weingarten said. "Despite efforts to divide and polarize, people are with us when we talk about our values: good jobs, decent retirement, healthcare, public education and democracy for all. These values are baked into our DNA, and when you talk to people around the country, that's their values too. Those things don't happen unless you have a democracy, and you don't have a democracy unless you fight for everybody's rights."

Weingarten explained that in order to connect the dots so people vote their values, we must expose, educate, engage and empower. "You can do this my friends. Members are fighting back every day. If we fight for these values and talk to people, we will take this country back."

At the end of the two days, the nurses and health professionals were ready to take action—energized with new ideas and strategies as well as a new sense of solidarity that they could take back to share with their members and their communities. First-time attendee Lennie Gregory, a nurse from Cleveland with more than 17 years of experience, left the conference feeling inspired: "I see that it's important for us to unite now more than ever. I'm going to get a lot more involved."

[Adrienne Coles]