The Evolution of a Real-World Advocacy Project

In Dr. Kirsten Havig’s Social Welfare Policy Analysis & Practice class we were assigned to follow and analyze a bill of our choosing during the 2015/2016 Legislative Session, and build on that knowledge by creating an advocacy strategy for a group project. We chose to follow Representative Steve Kouplen’s HB2848, the Oklahoma Death with Dignity Act. Kouplen’s Bill was squashed in Committee early in 2016.

To better comprehend the issue and the rationale for proposing the bill, we met with Representative Kouplen at the State Capitol. He shared his personal and political reasons for introducing a potentially controversial bill. He also declared that he would continue to reintroduce this legislation ad infinitum.

We posed the question - What advocacy strategy could we initiate to generate more support for the anticipated reintroduction of this bill? We discovered the NASW (National Association of Social Workers) has an official policy on End-of-Life Care, but not an unequivocal stance for or against End-of-Life Decisions. We consulted by phone and email with NASW staff about policy recommendations to the national board. Policy statement adoption and or revision by the triennial Delegate Assembly is an integral piece of the governance process of the NASW. Subsequently, our advocacy strategy evolved to a formal submission to recommend an adoption of an End-of-Life Decisions Policy Statement to the NASW Board of Directors.

Rep. Kouplen, encouraged by our advocacy and support of his legislative efforts, extended an invitation to us to participate in an Interim Study. An Interim Study is an opportunity to present information to legislators in committee about an issue or policy area. This is an indispensable tool for social work policy practice as it provides a forum for direct communication with and education for our state policymakers. We accepted the invitation.

On October 25, 2016 we presented our work at Interim Study 16-038 at the Oklahoma State Capitol. We came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation, a one page handout, and a copy of our recommended NASW End-of-Life Decisions Policy Statement. These materials became part of the resources for legislators to educate themselves and others as the proposed bill moves through the legislative process.

Upon arrival to the State Capitol, Representative Kouplen’s assistant led us to a conference room with microphones and screens. (Yes, we were nervous.) By 10am other participants, supporters and onlookers arrived - including legislators, advocates, medical personnel, bioethicists, and attorneys. Needless to say, we were part of an impressive delegation in support of End-of-Life Decisions. We were given ten minutes to speak. We spoke about the NASW guidelines that support “right to self-determination” and its relevance to individual health outcomes. We discussed the importance of individuals and families in making informed decisions about life-limiting illnesses. We spoke to the facts that four states have successfully implemented Death with Dignity Acts. We emphasized in 2016 seventeen states will vote on Death with Dignity legislation. We highlighted the common parameters and safety mechanisms used in application of the Death with Dignity Act. We concluded by sharing the specific impact this policy has on Oklahomans, due to the state’s statistically high rate of mortality among cancer patients. At the end of the Interim Study, attendees thanked us for our input, offered encouragement in our future professional social work practice, and requested our contact information to network for future events surrounding the issue.

We believe a change in NASW policy related to End-of-Life Decisions is a catalyst for a national perspective shift, and for the development of new systems of health care delivery. We believe the proposed NASW policy statement would support future legislation, and, just as significantly, support current and future social work practitioners in the field. Ultimately, the adoption of the proposed policy statement would give to individuals who meet the criteria a self-determined choice.

Thank you for your interest in our experience with legislative advocacy. A simple email to a State Representative led to a powerful professional and educational experience beyond the classroom. We learned policy change is within our reach.

Joy Miller-Davis MSW’17, Leah Owens MSW’17, Rian Smith MSW’17

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