Adapting to the new normal: AKF’s first Virtual Fly-in safely connected Ambassadors with their lawmakers

One thing we are all learning during the time of COVID-19 is the importance of adapting to new circumstances. For the American Kidney Fund’s (AKF) government relations team, there was no greater challenge than finding a way to recreate our annual in-person Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, which was originally scheduled for late April. We were able to successfully plan and execute a digital advocacy day on July 15—our first ever Virtual Fly-in—with 24 AKF Ambassadors from 15 states and the District of Columbia. During the Virtual Fly-in, our Ambassadors were able to meet with the offices of their U.S. senators and representatives to discuss issues of vital importance to kidney patients. Our Ambassadors attended 48 virtual meetings with their members of Congress and their staff.

This has been a year of incredible change and upheaval, especially around many issues relating to COVID-19, racial health disparities and social determinants of health. AKF has taken a leadership role in highlighting the impact of the pandemic on people with kidney disease, particularly in communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by both COVID 19 and kidney disease. The messages that our Ambassadors took virtually to Capitol Hill last week centered on addressing these health disparities and extending Medicare immunosuppressive drug coverage for people who receive kidney transplants. 

The Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2020 (H.R. 6637)

Many of our Ambassadors have been directly impacted by disparities in access to health care or have witnessed these disparities impacting others around them. In the House of Representatives, the Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2020 (HEAA) attempts to address health disparities by tackling their root causes and looking into why certain diseases, including kidney disease, affect some communities more than others. During our Virtual Fly-in, our Ambassadors asked their representatives to co-sponsor this important bill and looked for Senate offices that might be interested in introducing a companion bill in the Senate.

Improving Social Determinants of Health Act of 2020 (H.R. 6561)

Similar to the HEAA, the Improving Social Determinants of Health Act of 2020 creates grants to study, address and improve the social, economic and environmental factors that can disproportionately impact health outcomes for some groups more than others. This bill would create a social determinants of health program at the CDC to better understand these issues and eventually develop improvements that could be brought back to the communities that need them the most. Our Ambassadors asked their lawmakers to co-sponsor this bill in the House and also looked for Senate offices that would be interested in introducing a companion bill.

Comprehensive Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage for Kidney Transplant Patients Act of 2020 (H.R. 5534 / S. 3353)

As of mid-July, there are still 32 million people who are unemployed due to the COVID-19 crisis, which means millions of people have already lost or are at risk for losing their employer-sponsored health insurance. Now more than ever, it is especially important that transplant patients are able to reliably access the immunosuppressive drugs they must take in order to keep their transplanted kidney. Under current law, Medicare unfortunately only covers these medications for three years for people under the age of 65 who receive a kidney transplant. The Comprehensive Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage for Kidney Transplant Patients Act of 2020 would lift the three-year limit on Medicare coverage of immunosuppressive drugs for patients under 65. With so many people losing their health insurance as a result of the economic fallout from the pandemic, extending Medicare coverage for the life of the kidney transplant is crucial. Last week during our Virtual Fly-in, this bill was being reviewed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Our Ambassadors asked for their members of Congress to co-sponsor this bill in both the House and the Senate.

Outcome

We are extremely pleased with the results of our first ever Virtual Fly-in, especially since our team worked very hard to recreate some of the best parts of our in-person advocacy events. Despite the digital divide, we were able to connect our Ambassadors with one another in face-to-face Zoom trainings and we paired each Ambassador with an AKF staff volunteer so we continued to make the important personal connections that have always been so valuable to our advocacy day participants in the past.

It has been incredibly rewarding to see that our important advocacy work can continue in a way that keeps our Ambassadors safe during the pandemic, while also still bringing critical messages to lawmakers from all over the country. The development of our digital advocacy tools will have an impact long after the eventual end of the pandemic by providing more kidney patients, living donors and allies opportunities to advocate on behalf of the kidney community, without having to travel to Washington. We hope to hold more of these digital events in the future and have more opportunities for interested Ambassadors to get involved.

We are grateful to our corporate members whose support makes our advocacy work possible: Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Amgen; Ardelyx, Inc.; AstraZeneca; Aurinia Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Biotechnology Innovation Organization; GSK; Horizon Therapeutics plc; Omeros Corporation; Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc.; PhRMA; Relypsa, Inc.; Sanofi Genzyme; Tricida, Inc.; and Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

A big thank you to all the Ambassadors who participated in our Virtual Fly-in. Your voice matters as we work together to fight kidney disease on all fronts!

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About the Author

Kate Tremont

Kate Tremont is the associate director of government affairs for the American Kidney Fund.

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