I had the honor and privilege to serve as the SPSSI’s James Marshall Public Policy Fellow for the 2017-2018 year. As a psychologist, with a clinical specialization in pain psychology, I was drawn to the possibility of applying my skillset to influence policy in a state that was impacted by the opioid epidemic. I was offered the opportunity to work for Senator Maggie Hassan, the junior Senator from New Hampshire. An important factor in accepting the position was the Senator’s position as a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Working on the health policy portfolio for a member on the committee has allowed me to dive deeper into health care issues, especially in the short span of the fellowship.
This year has been a particularly active one in the health policy space. As such, I had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of topics in the Senate, including tackling the abuse of opioids, barriers to mental health treatment, and high prescription drug prices. Doing so has introduced me to the fascinating world of science policy. A world I found rewarding, especially as I was learning ways to utilize my academic and clinical background to inform the legislative process.
A prominent part of my fellowship experience has been preparing the Senator for congressional hearings, which includes writing comprehensive background memorandums, crafting questions the Senator may choose to ask during a hearing, and staffing her during the hearings. For example, I have helped staff the Senator during the nomination of Alex Azar to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services as well as during a hearing with Surgeon General Jerome Adams on his perspective on building healthy communities. The Senator has asked some of the questions that I have written for her, including a question on granting mental health providers’ access to Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs to increase effectiveness in treating patients with substance misuse disorder.
I also contributed to writing legislation for the Senator. The health policy team has worked on a bill that would increase access to medication assisted treatment for the opioid use disorder included in the Opioid Crisis Response Act. I aided in the research and writing of the mental health section of the bill, which defined psychological treatment and ensured patients receiving medication assisted therapy for opioid use disorder also received psychological services concurrently. The bill has been marked up and is slated to become law this year. Furthermore, I was granted the opportunity to staff the Senator on refugee issues, and I helped prepare her for a Congressional Delegation trip to the Middle East, which was a very unique experience. However, beyond learning about the federal government and the legislative process, I believe that one of the most important events that occurred during my fellowship year is helping reframe the way the team thinks about the opioid epidemic, moving away from the traditional explanation of it being a medication driven issue to one that also considers the pain management aspect as well.
As I reflect on this unique experience, I recognize that participating in this fellowship was incredibly valuable, especially at a time when our country’s ideals and norms are being challenged daily. Broadly, this experience has taught me tools to ensure we are using science to inform policy. More specifically, it also allowed me to participate in the movement to increase the representation of scientists in the legislative process. I leave this year confident that psychologists are an essential part of this movement and are at the forefront of influencing policy and transforming science into action.