COMMENTARY

How to Testify Before a State Legislature

Carolyn Buppert, MSN, JD

Disclosures

March 03, 2021

Carolyn
Buppert, MSN, JD

Every year, bills come before state legislatures that affect healthcare and healthcare providers. For example, a bill may seek to increase access to Medicaid, broaden what an insurance company must reimburse, change the scope of practice of nurse practitioners, or institute nurse staffing levels.

Who Can Testify?

Anyone can sign up to testify on a bill. Professional organizations and advocacy groups often ask individual healthcare providers to testify in favor of or against certain bills. The prospect of testifying can be daunting for one who may be an expert in healthcare but not in testifying.

One question that often comes up is whether healthcare professionals need to be a resident of the state before which they plan to testify. No, but when testifying outside of your own state, say where you are from and why you are testifying. For example, "I am a resident of Maryland, but the Nurse Practitioner Association of Delaware asked me to be here today, because I helped implement Maryland's bill on this subject, which was passed last year. I'd like to tell you about Maryland's experience with this matter, so that you may feel comfortable supporting Delaware's version of the bill."

Here are some tips on preparing, testifying, and following up:

Preparing to Testify

  1. Attend a hearing of the committee where you will be testifying a few days ahead. This is relatively easy right now, because most are held remotely. Schedules are posted on the legislature's website.

  2. Read the bill about which you are testifying. Read the legislative history of the bill — that is, find out who introduced it, who the sponsors are, and what votes have already occurred. Sign up for emailed updates on the bill's progress. All of this can be done online, through the legislator's portal.

  3. Ask yourself whether you are the right individual to be presenting. Do you have experience with the subject being considered or specific expertise? If you are asked to testify on a matter you know little about, decline.

  4. Connect with other speakers from your organization to find out what they plan to say. You want your testimony to add to theirs but not repeat what they say. Decide the order in which various individuals from your group will testify.

  5. Find out what organizations are on the other side of the issue. If you can identify what their arguments will be, you can come up with a response. It may be effective to address the opponents' position in your testimony and tell the lawmakers why they shouldn't accept the opposing argument.

  6. Visit the websites of the committee members to find out what district they represent and what they are interested in. You may find commonalities between you and an individual legislator that you can note in your testimony. Learn how to pronounce their names. Look at their photos so you know who is who.

  7. Analyze your statement from a diversity, equity, and inclusion point of view. For example, you might talk about how the bill affects access to healthcare for people of color, those with disabilities, people in rural areas, or those who are economically disadvantaged.

  8. Clear your schedule for the hearing date and time and also for several hours afterward, because hearings sometimes go on for hours. You don't want to be waiting for your turn and worrying that you will need to leave before testifying.

  9. Read your state legislature's instructions for testifying. For example, here are Oregon's instructions.

  10. If you will be testifying virtually, familiarize yourself with the technology ahead of the hearing time. Know how to register, sign on, turn the video on and off, and mute and unmute yourself.

  11. Write up your comments. You can submit them as written testimony.

  12. PowerPoint isn't used in legislative testimony, but a poster board may be useful in stating your position. Check with the committee staff before preparing visual aids, to see whether restrictions apply.

  13. If you have special needs, contact the committee staff at least 24 hours ahead of the hearing.

Testifying

  1. Arrive early and sign in.

  2. At all times during the meeting, be very aware of whether you are muted or not, or on camera. Mute yourself until it is your turn to talk. When you are finished testifying, mute yourself again. Be aware of what your background looks like. Legislators don't expect those testifying to have a professional-looking studio, but be aware that posters on the wall behind you convey their own messages. It is not a big deal if your cat, dog, or child makes an appearance.

  3. When called on, introduce yourself and state your connection to the issue. Present your position and your rationale.

  4. Keep your remarks succinct.

  5. Use a notecard with bullet points to remind you of the points you want to make. Speak conversationally, if you can, rather than reading your testimony.

  6. Tell stories about your patients or yourself, to help the legislators understand how the bill will affect their constituents' daily lives. For example, if the bill would break down barriers in access to care, tell a story about how a patient came to you with a need, but you couldn't help because of the barrier. If talking about a patient, you must deidentify the patient — that is, don't name the patient and don't provide identifying details such that a listener could tell who you are referring to.

  7. Make the "ask": What do you want the legislators to do?

  8. If, during the hearing, you discover that what you were going to say has already been said, don't repeat an argument already made, but say you agree with the previous testimony.

  9. Answer any questions respectfully. If you don't know the answer, promise to get the answer and get back to the legislator, and then do it.

  10. Never disparage other individuals who have testified or are on the committee. Don't scold, lecture, or interrupt someone else who is speaking.

  11. If you have a written statement, tell the legislators that you have or will submit it. Usually this is done electronically.

  12. If the hearing runs out of time before your turn to speak, submit your written testimony and know that someone on the committee will read it.

  13. Say thank you at the end of your talk. Follow up with a thank-you email to the committee members.

Don't be afraid to take on this work. If you do, you'll be participating in our democratic process and are sure to learn something about how laws are made.

Carolyn Buppert ( www.buppert.com ) is an attorney and former nurse practitioner who focuses on the legal issues affecting nurse practitioners.

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