The future of NRHA advocacy
Fresh faces and new tools have bolstered NRHA’s advocacy efforts over the past year, with new Government Affairs staff aiming to revitalize member outreach and make it easier to promote rural health during the pandemic and beyond.
While still relying on the association’s established approaches, the new team has focused largely on “modernizing how we advocate,” says Mason Zeagler, who served as NRHA’s Government Affairs senior associate from 2019 to 2021, marking the beginning of a transition within the department. Backbone efforts such as the association’s Rural Health Congress, policy roundups, and highlevel policy recommendations that articulate NRHA’s positions have been enhanced by new and updated online tools and platforms designed with members in mind.
“What’s always been and what we’ve done in the last year are two different things,” explains Carrie Cochran- McClain, MPA, NRHA’s chief policy officer since October 2020. “We’ve focused on reviewing our policy approaches and statements and trying to make them actionable, giving members tools to work with members of Congress and the administration.”
“With all these tools, we’re trying to do the heavy lifting for our members so they don’t have to do research or figure out the ask,” Cochran-McClain adds. “Plus, they can wrap in the power of their own stories.”
Meet the new team
The newest addition to the threemember Government Affairs staff, Cochran-McClain serves as head lobbyist for the association and is responsible for driving the rural health policy agenda for all 21,000 members. A fifth-generation Montanan, her upbringing placed her squarely “in a context where I inherently understand some of the challenges and ways that health care is provided in a rural setting,” she says. “Starting this new position felt like coming home in a lot of ways and an opportunity to go back to a topic that I’m passionate about: getting access to care for people who need it most.”
Zeagler first joined NRHA as an intern in 2018 and came to oversee the association’s advocacy communications, contributing to the website, NRHA Connect, and the Rural Health Voices blog, among other publishing efforts. He was also instrumental in redeveloping NRHA’s annual Rural Health Policy Institute, which will be held Feb. 8-10 in Washington, D.C.
Hailing from a rural area in eastern North Carolina, and with a registered nurse mother working in health care in his hometown, Zeagler says he really has a passion for health care, and especially rural health care. “No matter where I go after NRHA, I will be the rural voice at the table,” he says. “I plan to always keep rural in mind, no matter where my career takes me.”
Rounding out the team is Josh Jorgensen, NRHA’s Government Affairs and policy manager, who joined in 2020 after serving as legislative aide for U.S. Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and working extensively on rural health care policy. Jorgensen feels his origins in rural South Dakota, combined with his professional background, have prepared him well for his NRHA role.
“I don’t have the experience of working in hospitals or in studying every component of rural health, but I like to think I understand the policy and politics surrounding it and the need to increase access to health care for rural folks on the legislative side,” he says.
With more than 18 years of experience working in federal health policy development — including leadership roles at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy — Cochran-McLain focuses much of her NRHA efforts on the executive branch, while Jorgensen zeroes in on Congress. The team works in tandem, each supplementing the others’ experiences and duties.
“One of the things I love about our Government Affairs team is that we have a really interesting complement of interests and skill sets,” Cochran- McClain says.
New advocacy tools
Two new tools are the centerpiece of the association’s efforts to help members more seamlessly advocate on behalf of rural health. These include:
NRHA advocacy campaigns: This feature connects hundreds of rural stakeholders with lawmakers from local, state, and federal offices. A few easy clicks help members reach one or multiple members of Congress, customizing content as desired to allow their unique voice to be heard by those in power at every level.
Before this tool was in place, members needed to reach out to NRHA staff to track down contact information for congressional members. But “the new software allows them to send messages to members of Congress that are pre-drafted,” Zeagler explains. “They can also customize pre-drafted messages or send their own, adding a personal story or information on how issues specifically impact their facility, research, or practice.”
NRHA’s legislative tracker: This tool does exactly what its name suggests by tracking rural health legislation in Congress. With a few clicks, members can view bills the association is monitoring, including those endorsed and opposed, along with a summary of each, co-sponsors, and congressional actions.
“Before the legislative tracker tool, members would have to ask our team if NRHA supported a bill and, if not, tell us if it was something they thought we should support,” Zeagler says. “It was clunky. This makes the process much more digestible, giving the feel that each bill has a scorecard rather than something you have to interpret.”
Another recent undertaking is the weekly Rural Roundup newsletter focusing on NRHA’s advocacy efforts. Zeagler helped launch this in summer 2019, and it arrives in subscriber inboxes every Friday. The publication builds on topics discussed in monthly membership calls, offering updates from both the executive and legislative branches as well as grassroots efforts. “It creates sort of a running conversation with our members between the NRHA Today newsletter and the actual calls themselves,” Zeagler says.
"We can talk to a staffer for three hours straight, but a two-paragraph email from a constituent or member is going to do more than we ever could. It may seem silly to continue reaching out on an issue, but it really does move the needle in a lot of offices, because members are much more influential than they might think."
Meanwhile, several advocacy approaches remain NRHA mainstays, with some fresh tweaks to suit current needs. Chief among them is the Rural Health Policy Institute, where hundreds of rural health stakeholders from across the nation gather to speak directly with elected officials to advocate for legislation and policies protecting rural patients, providers, and communities.
“It’s important to have that kind of dialogue between elected officials and members of the administration and our folks on the ground — a place where they can put a face and story around so many policies our Government Affairs team advocates for,” Cochran-McClain says. “It’s our opportunity to rally the troops and get momentum around our objectives.”
Now in its 33rd year, this year’s event also will highlight opioid use disorder at the Rural Health Disparities Summit, which acknowledges health disparities specific to rural areas and offers members tools to overcome significant challenges.
Another initiative planned for 2022 is the debut of a new NRHA advocacy guide. Available in digital and print versions, the document will list advocacy priorities as well as guide members on how to set up congressional visits and get involved with district meetings and local town halls. “These are things we communicate to our membership all the time but haven’t necessarily been codified,” Zeagler says.
Camaraderie and cohesiveness are also key benefits of attending the Policy Institute, says Cochran-McClain. “It’s a time when folks really love to come together to network and connect with counterparts within their own states, to learn about the challenges they’re facing and collectively bring that to Congress, as well as to hear best practices and lessons learned from others around the country.”
Advocacy updates are brought full circle with key changes to the NRHA website and NRHA Connect platform.
The website now includes pages specifically dedicated to the legislative and executive branch. “It’s either been built upon or reorganized in ways that make it simpler for our advocates to use,” Zeagler explains. “It’s where we’ll post our new advocacy guide as well.”
NRHA Connect has become the “main avenue of communication” with members, Zeagler says, “giving the full breadth of membership and advocacy efforts all in one website.” The latest updates on policy-related issues are posted on the platform, and member forums allow for a free flow of information and debate under broader categories.
“Members should understand that NRHA Connect is fundamental to our advocacy,” Zeagler says. “It’s not just an email you receive. We see a lot of long-standing members who are surprised or unaware of everything that NRHA Connect holds.”
Power of members
All the new advocacy tools are now seamlessly promoted throughout NRHA communications efforts, Zeagler says. The upcoming Policy Institute will also include an Advocacy 101 session that instructs members on the new tools and how to use them.
The Government Affairs staff hopes members understand that their own power surpasses anything the team might be able to accomplish. “We always try to continue to hammer home that there is no way to duplicate the ‘constituent touch’ advocates can have on elected officials,” Jorgensen says. “We can talk to a staffer for three hours straight, but a two-paragraph email from a constituent or member is going to do more than we ever could.
It may seem silly to continue reaching out on an issue, but it really does move the needle in a lot of offices, because members are much more influential than they might think.”
Cochran-McClain hopes members will reach out to the Government Affairs team to point out any remaining gaps or needs. “If they have an issue they care about that they don’t see reflected in our advocacy materials, we want to know,” she says. “In return, we’re going to ask for their expertise and insights into how to help solve those problems. The power of their voice goes to the Hill, but is also critical within our association.”