Making A Difference In Washington

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by Congressman Marty Russo
I’ve spent my career in politics and government with eighteen years in the U.S. House of Representatives and twenty-two years as a top lobbyist. My message to you is that what happens in Washington matters. The best way to impact federal policy making is to get involved. You can make a difference.
There is a lot of activity in Washington these days around legislating and regulating sleep apnea and transportation safety.   I can tell you that there are large gaps in understanding among federal policy makers regarding the latest advances in dental sleep medicine. There is no consensus among all the federal players as to how to best approach the issue of sleep apnea.
The good news is that this lack of consensus gives you an opportunity to have your voice heard. Here’s an inspiring story about how one organization made a difference in federal policy. I first met the leaders of the American Academy of Craniofacial Pain (AACP) when receiving treatment for sleep apnea from Dr. Elliott Alpher of The Alpher Center in Washington, D.C. Dr. Alpher told me that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) was actively preparing to issuepolicies covering commercial truck drivers and sleep apnea. The DOT was concerned about truckers falling asleep at the wheel and causing accidents.
Here’s the problem. The proposed policy was based on old medical data from 2008. There was no input from any experts on oral appliance therapy. The DOT believed that oral appliance therapy has “no method to monitor compliance.”
140923_Russo_01We know that there have been huge leaps in technology since 2008. Oral appliances are in fact a highly effective treatment for sleep apnea. Studies show oral appliances have a high compliance rate, compliance can be tracked and sleep studies can now be held in the home.  In short, had the DOT been able to implement that original policy, the government would be doing a disservice to truckers by excluding oral appliances as an acceptable treatment.
The leaders at the AACP got into action to tell the DOT the other side of the story.  A meeting took place on July 11, 2013 with over a dozen people present. The message was simple. Oral appliances have an important role to play in treating sleep apnea in truckers. Any policy that excludes oral appliances is a bad policy.
As a result of that meeting, the DOT is now a believer. They have the latest science on oral appliances and how they can be used in the treatment of sleep apnea. The AACP made a difference and played an important role in preventing bad policy from going forward.
In fact, so many groups spoke up about the proposed DOT policies that Congress got involved. Legislation was enacted that requires the DOT to go through the rulemaking process before issuing any policies on sleep apnea in truckers.
A rulemaking process means that the DOT has to do the following:

  • Hold an open, public process that ensures all viewpoints are heard
  • Explore all alternatives including less intrusive methods of treatment
  • Conduct a cost-benefit analysis

This is going to take at least three years.  It gives the AACP and others in the dental sleep  field time to offer additional expertise and commentary so that any regulatory outcome includes a level playing field for oral appliance therapy.
Do you want to have your voice heard in Washington on sleep disorders?
Start by researching what the federal government is doing about sleep disorders.  Then, take the time to get involved.  I urge you to develop a relationship with your own Member of Congress and his or her staff.  That Member is your single best source of help. If you haven’t met him or her, you should. If you belong to an association or academy, contact them to find out how they are being active in federal government issues. Offer your help.
When you speak with people, educate them on your issue. Public officials don’t know all that you know. Find out their questions and concerns. Understand all sides of the issues and not just your own point of view. Be respectful and helpful.
I always tell my lobbying clients that it’s important to become part of the solution and not part of the problem. You do this by offering to provide relevant scientific information so that good decisions can be made, not by criticizing and complaining.
At this point in my career, I spend a lot of my time giving back by speaking to groups about how to make a difference in Washington. The crowd favorite is a fun presentation titled, “If You’re Not At The Table, You’re On The Menu.” My parting advice to you is that when it comes to treating sleep disorders, you want to be at the table with federal bureaucrats – not on their menu!

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