NWHSU Students and Alumni Discuss Chiropractic Policy with Lawmakers at the State Capitol

On February 26, students, faculty, and administrators from the NWHSU chiropractic program joined alumni and other members of the Minnesota Chiropractic Association (MCA) at the Minnesota State Capitol with for 2020 Day at the Capitol, an annual event that combines visits with local lawmakers to discuss pending legislation with continuing education and professional development.

The event gives chiropractors an unique, direct point of contact with their elected representatives to discuss the issues that are critically important to the profession and patients.

MCA Day at the Capitol NWHSU

Northwestern Health Sciences University faculty and students meet with Minnesota State Senator, Melissa Halvorson Wiklund, District 50. (Left to right: Senator Halvorson Wiklund, Dr. Deborah Bushway, President and CEO at NWHSU, Dr. Chuck Sawyer, chiropractic student, Benjamin Degenhart.)

“The main difference between educating lawmakers here in Minnesota and in Washington, are that the visits here are with the senators and representatives themselves,” says Chuck Sawyer, D.C., NWHSU’s Special Assistant to the President who also serves as the MCA Professional Officer for Legislative Affairs. “Generally in Washington, meetings are held with legislative assistants. But here, more than nine times out of 10 you’re going to meet directly with your House or Senate representative.”

NWHSU is committed to the professional success of its students and alumni, but the university’s commitment to establishing a legislative and policy voice has an impact felt far beyond our campus.

“We’re here to advocate for our patients, our colleagues, and for the overall health of our community. Many in our communities have a lack of understanding of what chiropractic has to offer as an alternative to allopathic or pharmaceutical based medical delivery,” says Stephen Thompson, D.C., DACM, who has been attending MCA’s Day at the Capitol event since 2016. “It is our job as practitioners and as health advocates to educate our patients, our communities, and decision makers within the community on our non-pharmaceutical, non-surgical approach to medicine.”

Engaged NWHSU Alumni Gather to Support the Profession

From seasoned professionals to new graduates, NWHSU alumni typically make up the majority of MCA members who attend the Day at the Capitol event. The student participation opportunities created by the university often inspire graduates to continue attending lobbying events after they make the transition to practicing doctors.

MCA Day at the Capitol NWHSU

NWHSU faculty and students head to their next meetings with state representatives. (Left to right: chiropractic student Alex Grubish, chiropractic student, Benjamin Degenhart, Dr. Deborah Bushway, President and CEO at NWHSU, and Dr. Chuck Sawyer.)

Alyssa Clarity, who earned her D.C. degree from NWHSU in 2018, traveled down from her practice in International Falls, Minn., to visit with lawmakers alongside her fellow NWHSU alumni.

“When I was in school, I attended ACA’s lobbying day at NCLC in Washington, D.C., and also attended the MCA at the Capitol,” says Dr. Clarity. “It was a part of school I really enjoyed, so having the ability to be a voice for patients and talking with legislators is something I plan on continuing throughout my career. It also keeps me up to date on what legislation is going through and how it may impact the patients.  I wasn’t able to attend MCA Day at the Capitol last year because I had just started practicing, but I’m thankful I was able to attend this year.”

Dr. Thompson, who also started participating in both state and national lobbying efforts as an NWHSU student, believes these efforts are essential to advancing the chiropractic profession.

“I have been to every MCA Day at the Capital since I started attending NWHSU in 2016 along with every National Chiropractic Day at the Capital called NCLC or Engage2020,” says Dr. Thompson. “I believe that any change at the organizational and national level starts with a grass roots engagement of those within the profession and the allies that lie on the periphery of our profession.”

Craig Couillard, D.C., who earned his NWHSU chiropractic degree at NWHSU in 2000, has made the trip to the Minnesota State Capitol before—and served as the MCA Legislative Committee chair from 2007-17, then as president of the organization from 2017-18.

MCA Day at the Capitol

Dr. Craig Couilliard (R) discusses legislative issues with Kevin P. Goodno, the lobbyists for the Minnesota Chiropractic Association.

“The event has grown over the years,” says Dr. Couillard. “Fifteen years ago, 20 doctors would attend.  Our consistent presence every year has paid off.”

Making Policy Changes that Matter

During their visit to the capitol, MCA members focused their conversations with legislators on two issues. First, calling attention the value and effectiveness of drug-free chiropractic care for the treatment of back and neck pain.

“For that important topic, doctors and students were provided with an infographic developed by the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress that they left with their House and Senate members,” says Dr. Sawyer.

Second, MCA members discussed current legislation to increase the coverage of services that chiropractors are able to provide under Minnesota’s medical assistance program. Many services within the chiropractic scope of practice—physical examinations and rehabilitative exercises, for example—are not covered by Minnesota Medical Assistance, forcing low-income patients to pay out of pocket for these services, according to the MCA.

“The old saying goes all politics are local,” says Dr. Sawyer. “So I’ve always maintained that there are three aspects to getting legislation passed that’s favorable or getting unfavorable legislation stopped. First, there’s grassroots advocacy, and that’s primarily constituent contact. Getting voters to turn out and meet with their House and Senate members. The second of course is professional lobbying. The third is fundraising. And they all work hand in hand.”

Building Relationships with State Lawmakers

More than any single meeting, it is the relationships that chiropractic doctors build with lawmakers over years of consistent communication that really give the profession influence, according to Dr. Couillard.

MCA Day at the Capitol NWHSU

NWHSU alumni meet with Minnesota Representative Dave Baker. (Left to right: Dr. Chuck Sawyer, Dr. Sara Cuperus, Claire Cuperus, Minnesota Representative Dave Baker, Dr. Erin Hovey, Dr. Samantha Shand.)

“We have a good reputation at the state level because of our consistency and handling issues in a respectful way,” says Dr. Couillard. “We have built good relationships over time. I always attend the MCA Day at the Capitol to continue to foster current relationships and develop new relationships. This day is vital for the profession to maintain our seat at the table. If we are not at the table, others will gladly sit in our seat.”

Sometimes the meetings can add a new dimension to an established connection. Dr. Clarity, who practices in the small Northern town of International Falls, Minn., sees her elected representative on the streets of her town often, and yet she still traveled to the Capitol to speak with him.

“There’s a lot of value in speaking with your legislators in person in their office,” says Dr. Clarity. “I do know my current representative personally, and I could have talked to him in town, but having the conversation in his office is more impactful.  There, they take notice of the dedication and passion we have for our patients, because we have made the effort of traveling to the Capitol to discuss these issues. And when he leaves office, I’m hoping to have the same close relationship with my future representative.”

Dr. Thompson stresses the importance of educating the public on the benefits of chiropractic care.

“Many in our communities have a lack of understanding of what chiropractic has to offer as an alternative to allopathic or pharmaceutical based medical delivery. It is our job as practitioners and as health advocates to educate our patients, our communities, and decision makers within the community on how our non-pharmaceutical, non-surgical approach to medicine has the ability to fundamentally transform the ideas of what health and wellness are while lessening the burden on healthcare overall.”

MCA Day at the Capitol NWH

NWHSU alumni between meetings with lawmakers. (Left to right: Dr. Jacob Dalbec, Dr. Michael Hennes, Dr. Andreas Ezer, and Dr. Jordan Knowlton-Key.)

Making an Impact for All Minnesota Chiropractors

Over the years, Dr. Sawyer has seen the evolution of the chiropractic profession in the State of Minnesota, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the MCA and its members.

“Thirty years ago, legislators didn’t know a lot about chiropractic care,” Dr. Sawyer says. “But now because chiropractic is for the most part covered by insurance companies and public funding, and now we’re in hospitals and VA medical centers and major health systems, we’re in the thick of it in terms of the provider workforce. Our conversations are more about getting an interest in the legislation and getting their support for it.”

Whatever the outcome of this legislative session, NWHSU and the MCA will certainly have a presence at next year’s event—because it matters.

“If I could give one piece of advice about MCA Day at the Capital it would be to show up and participate,” says Dr. Thompson. “It takes time, sacrifice, and courage. Almost every doctor that shows up to MCA Day takes time away from their busy schedules to represent all of the states’ chiropractors.

“The other piece of advice is not to be afraid. I’ve heard from students in the past that said they were interested in attending but were fearful about speaking about policy and to politicians. Everyone gets nervous the first time you speak with a representative or senator, but it’s important to remember that these politicians are just people who care about their communities and constituents as much as we do about our patients. Remember that these folks are the gate keepers to policy changes that impact every patient and every practitioner. Your voice matters, your presence matters, and most importantly your participation matters.”