Moving Research Forward through Legislative Advocacy

January 12 2022

Written by Pat Halpin-Murphy, NRG Oncology Patient Advocate Committee Co-Chair, President and Founder, PA Breast Cancer Coalition

When I survived stage III breast cancer over 30 years ago, I knew I had been spared for a reason. During that time, I also realized just how much needed to change for women in Pennsylvania. And so, I founded the PA Breast Cancer Coalition to give women a voice and a platform. The best way for us to make a real change, I felt, was through legislative advocacy.

Since then, the Coalition has produced victory after victory, thanks to a network of survivors, caregivers and advocates focused on fighting for the needs of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. The PBCC fought to ensure that all Pennsylvania women, beginning at age 40, were able to receive mammograms at no cost, 15 years before it became federal law. The Coalition was behind the state’s Reconstructive Surgery Act, requiring insurance coverage of reconstruction after breast cancer surgery. Our network made Pennsylvania the first state in the nation to cover 3D mammograms at no cost to women and one of the first to require coverage for breast MRIs and ultrasounds for women with high-risk conditions. The PBCC’s legislation has led to millions of dollars in cancer research funding, free breast cancer treatment for the under-insured and the list goes on.

Here are the 4 key components to a successful legislative advocacy campaign:

Find a champion
For every piece of legislation, you need to find a lawmaker who is as passionate about the issue as you are. It could be a lawmaker with a personal connection to the cause, a legislator with a constituent affected by the issue or someone who has a history of success in working on similar laws. Once that champion is found, this lawmaker can serve as the prime sponsor of the legislation your organization is working to pass.

Set your goal
Research the topic (are there similar laws in existence?, what strong evidence do you have to support your claims?) and develop a clear idea of what you want to accomplish with the legislation. For example, the PBCC recently worked on a law that now requires insurers to cover breast MRIs and ultrasounds for women with high-risk factors. In that instance, scholarly journal articles like a clinical trial published in JAMA provided support for our claims. In order to demonstrate the need for this, we conducted research to 1.) Prove that breast MRI and ultrasounds are more effective and necessary for those women and 2.) Women were not currently covered for those screenings.

Secure additional sponsors
The more sponsors your legislation has, the more likely it is to pass. By reaching out to individual senators or representatives and communicating how the issue affects their constituents, you will establish credibility and build important relationships. For this step, it is important to have clear communications materials including personal stories and concise statistics to prove your case. It is also helpful to provide lawmakers with materials they can send in their own publications and newsletter outreach. In-person meetings are much more effective than emails at this stage.

Mobilize your grassroots network
This step is critical. By using those communications materials from the previous step, urge your network of volunteers and advocates to take action! Make it easy by sending contact information for the lawmaker in each own district along with talking points about the legislation you are working to pass. The simpler, the better. Encourage in-person meetings and phone calls when possible for this step as they are the most effective.

Once your champion, goals, co-sponsors and network are established, it is important to remember that negotiations may need to happen. You may have to make some concessions on your ultimate goal, but keep the big picture in mind during this process, and you will be successful in making an impact. Take action. Save lives!

Increased funding is imperative for cancer research. Doctors, healthcare professionals and research advocates can help increase that needed funding by engaging in legislative advocacy to raise the money necessary to improve treatments and ultimately find cures for cancer.

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