Physician Assistant students lobby on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill for bills that would improve patient care and increase access to academic programs

They may not be professional lobbyists, but students in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program have spent time over the past few weeks made their voices heard at the United States Congress and Massachusetts Legislature.

Led by program chair Josh Merson, several first-year students spent time in Washington advocating for legislation that includes increased funding to Title VII programs that would increase primary care training and enhancement grants, diversity in physician assistant education, and scholarships for disadvantaged students.

“This is a great way for students to become empowered and to know that their voices really matter,” said Merson, for whom this was the fifth year he had brought students to Capitol Hill. “They realize that this is something they can do to make a difference above just treating patients.”

The group was in Washington for two days in March participating in the 2024 Spring advocacy trip organized by the PA Education Association, which represents physician assistant programs in the country. Prior to arriving, the students were given fact sheets on the three topics and pointers on best ways to discuss them with the politicians’ staff members with whom they would be meeting, which were reinforced on the first day during training sessions by the organization’s government relations team.

The overall goal was to help convince lawmakers to increase funding that will support more resources for curriculum development, increase clinical rotation availability, and enhance student diversity in alignment with PAEA’s advocacy agenda. A bill of particular interest was H.R. 6077 – the POST GRAD Act, which would restore access to subsidized Stafford loans to graduate students and eliminate thousands of dollars of interest payments for the typical PA student borrower.

Students broke up into teams to visit the staffs of Representatives Jake Auchincloss, Katherine Clark, Stephen Lynch, and Ayanna Pressley, all of whom represent Massachusetts in D.C. All the students met with staffers of Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Marjorie Archila and classmate Lodtz Joseph visited with staffers in Auchincloss’ office. “We were straight to the point about why we were there,” Archila recalled. “It was a good meeting.”

Archila’s focus was the importance of increasing scholarships for students like her who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Prior to attending the IHP, she spent a great deal of time searching for scholarships not only to pay for part of her education but even application fees. “There are people who have gone through even more barriers than me,” said Archila, whose mother is from Guatemala. “I want it to be that students don’t feel the need to worry as much about that and not get discouraged.”

Kaitlin Farrell, who was paired with classmate Jessica Langston, talked with staffers for Clark and Lynch. “It was a really unique experience, and we felt we were prepared to have good discussions,” said Farrell, who had never lobbied before. 

Farrell said having students qualify for the subsidized Stafford loans – that don’t accrue interest – would go a long way toward making their lives easier. “PA programs are demanding and there isn’t time to have a part-time job so that would definitely help,” she said.

Farrell noted that being with students from other programs – the University of Southern California, Colorado University, and Keck Graduate Institute in California – gave she and the other IHP students a sense of a shared mission.

“Being able to interact with them was great,” Farrell said. “What we were there for was to help bring down barriers to entering the PA field and then staying in the field as well.”

A highlight of the trip was when the students saw the House and Senate debating bills – although not the bills they were there advocating for. 

Other students who went to Washington were Mariana Shalit, Rita Sharma, Abigail Abellana, and Angel Fuentes.

The Boston visit occurred in early April, when students accompanied Merson to Beacon Hill for the annual Massachusetts Association of Physician Assistants lobby day. The focus that day was to promote a bill that would significantly improve patient access to care by modernizing outdated administrative barriers to practice for PAs in Massachusetts while preserving interprofessional, team-based practice. The bill would remove the requirement that PAs file a supervising physician with the Commonwealth while retaining the ability of healthcare facilities to require this at the practice level. Bills in both the House and Senate would extend provisions that were temporarily granted during the COVID-19 pandemic and help fill a labor gap.

More than 200 students from the IHP, Tufts University, Northeastern University, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences attended.

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