Alec Stone
Alec Stone MA, MPA, ONS Public Affairs Director

Since 2016, ONS has gathered hundreds of nurse advocates in the nation’s capital to speak truth to power during its annual Hill Days conference. This two-day meeting brings more than 100 oncology nurses to Washington, DC, to learn about the Society’s health policy legislative agenda and to be trained in how to educate elected officials on the priority issues most important to ONS members.

In previous Hill Days, participants heard from congressional staff, federal regulatory agency heads at the National Institutes for Health and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and patient advocates who are leaders in cancer awareness and prevention. Former Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Mary Wakefield, RN, PhD, and Centers for Disease and Prevention’s Control Cancer Division Director Lisa Richardson, MD, also presented. And former Vice President Joe Biden held court at the White House as Hill Days participants listened to him speak emotionally about his son’s cancer experience and how oncology nurses are equal partners in high-quality, patient-centered care. It was an amazing moment.

Meeting ONS’s Health Policy Agenda

Hill Days highlights the year’s work in promoting congressional bills and acts that are the cornerstone of the Society’s advocacy mission. Ensuring care, advancing quality, and protecting the workforce are the pillars on which ONS engages decision makers, helping to transform health care in the United States.

ONS’s charge is to demystify the process and demonstrate that nurses are a powerful voice for both patients and their own profession. In a recent article on advocacy, a pundit said, “Our ability to communicate openly, freely, and honestly with the members of Congress that represent us is one of the hallmarks of American democracy.”

Making Nurses’ Voices Heard

Each nurse represents a chapter and spends the first day in intense training on the details of legislation, regulation, and the current political environment. With discussions about accessibility and affordability, nurses learn from experts who spend their time delving into the ins and outs of public policy. It’s not glamorous work, but it does present the case for how and why to craft initiatives that should be designed to help people, especially those surrounding ONS priority topics such as tobacco cessation, opioids, and clinical trials.

Day two is dedicated to putting those lessons into action. Nurses have a folder with the bills for which they will be advocating and each is assigned to meet with their own elected officials’ office, because “contact with constituents has always been a central function of any legislator’s office.”

Building that relationship is important. Nurses are the most trusted profession, so when a nurse tells a story, presents a scenario, or offers insight, decision makers are listening. That political cache makes a difference and is a powerful tool. 

Members of Congress have open-door policies and the office of a senator or representative will accept the call or the drop by. However, making an appointment in advance, arriving prepared, and providing materials present a level of professionalism and seriousness that is not often seen. Participatory democracy requires the willingness of the governed, but it does not mean the relinquishment of rights. Elected officials should be held accountable and for the most part are, but citizens must be advocates for their own rights.

Join your colleagues and friends and become an ONS advocate. Now more than ever, nurses must be heard, both in Washington, DC, and at home. Learn more and get involved.