While many of her hospital lobbying colleagues in Washington are worried about legislation that could mean billions of new dollars in Medicare spending, Deborah Veres is helping to shepherd a bill through Congress much smaller in dollar figures but just as important to hospitals trying to get healthcare coverage for the poor.
Veres, 30, public-policy director in Washington for St. Louis-based Ascension Health, the nation's largest not-for-profit healthcare system, has created a presence for Ascension in Washington by urging lawmakers to fund programs that help poor and uninsured people obtain healthcare coverage.
An immediate goal is passage of legislation that will restore funding to the Community Access Program, an HHS program that gives grants of $1 million or more to community coalitions that aim to help uninsured people obtain healthcare services. Ascension is part of such coalitions in four cities-Austin, Texas; Binghamton, N.Y.; Detroit and New Orleans-and matches grants in each one with $1 million of its own.
Funded at $25 million in its first year, fiscal 2000, and $125 million in fiscal 2001, the program was given no funding in President Bush's budget proposal for fiscal 2002. So Veres, along with lobbyists for community health centers and the National Association of Public Hospitals, has been pressing members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to provide $125 million again in 2002.
That's a small bill in dollar figures, perhaps, but to the low-income patients served by the program it means a great deal. And it's that focus on service to the poor, Veres says, that gives Ascension a unique voice in Washington.
"I think the thing about our mission that interests policymakers is that we do speak from the voice of service. We want to improve the lives of people who are vulnerable," says Veres. "What we provide is our mission and our information. Those things are what gets us in the door."
Before Ascension executives get in those doors on Capitol Hill, Veres views her job as serving as a liaison between lawmakers and the 65-hospital health system's decisionmakers. That involves building relationships with lawmakers and their aides.
It also entails preparing Ascension executives to speak the language of Congress when they meet with lawmakers, who are often pressed for time and don't always understand healthcare markets or the specific missions of hospitals.
"I prepare them to make a case that's clear and distinct and concise," Veres says.
Readying those executives is a job for which Veres appears to be well-suited. A 1995 graduate of the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, she began her legislative career as an aide to an Alaska state legislator before pursuing a master's degree in health administration at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1997, she was awarded a Foster G. McGaw Scholarship administered by the American College of Healthcare Executives while studying for her master's degree, in part because of an essay that assessed why hospital executives don't take a greater role in shaping healthcare legislation.
Her conclusion? "Because there are so many other day-to-day things that happen, fires that need to be put out," Veres says. "The policy world is something that affects them on a day-to-day basis, but it's not as much in their face."
Veres came to Ascension in November 2000 from the office of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) where she had served as a legislative assistant for health policy since mid-1999. Before that, she was the David A. Winston Health Policy Fellow in Washington, where she served as an aide to the House Ways and Means Committee's healthcare subcommittee and provided staff support to members of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare.
"She has worked for the federal government in drafting legislation to improve healthcare on a national scale, and now in her capacity at Ascension Health, is working on improving access to care for the nation's most vulnerable populations," says Susan Nestor Levy, Ascension's senior vice president of advocacy and external relations.