Martha Leatherman, MD, former Federation of Texas Psychiatry Vice Chairman for
Public Policy and former TSPP Chairman, Government Affairs Committee


The evolution of psychiatric legislative advocacy over the past ten years has been fascinating and informative. When I first became involved with organized Texas psychiatry, each legislative session was marked by harrowing battles during which we fought to preserve the rights of Texans to receive ECT when necessary. At the time, we were forced to advocate from a defensive position, few psychiatrists were involved, and we spent hours before legislative committees testifying while the Citizens Commission on Human Rights spread slanderous misinformation about us to the public and to the legislators. Tireless work by John Bush, Debbie Sundberg, and wonderful TSPP presidents have allowed us to enjoy the past 3 legislative sessions without anti-ECT bills.

Although, we have, for the present, neutralized the threat to ECT, psychiatrists nationwide have been beleaguered by a certain faction of well-funded, well-organized psychologists who are doggedly seeking to assume the privilege of practicing medicine without earning a medical degree. Louisiana and New Mexico have fallen against the onslaught of these misguided psychologists, increasing the threat of an eventual psychologist victory in Texas. The psychologists filed their prescribing bill in Texas during the 2001 and 2003 Legislative sessions. On both occasions, we prevailed in defeating them. Recent victories by psychologists in New Mexico and Louisiana, however, energized the Texas Psychological Association in its quest to achieve prescribing privileges from the Texas Legislature in 2005. We have worked hard over the past two years to prepare for their expected onslaught in the 2005 Legislative Session. However, on March 11, the final day to file bills for the current session, a psychologist prescribing bill failed to emerge. Although their bill was not filed, we will continue to be vigilant to ensure that their legislative initiative does not appear as an amendment to a bill that has been filed. The Session is not over. But for the effective efforts of organized psychiatry in Texas, psychologists would have already won prescribing privileges by legislative fiat.

There are a few reasons I think we have prevailed and I think the study of our legislative efforts over the last ten years on these two major fronts is instructive and will help us in the inevitable battles to come. Here are the lessons I have learned:


Lesson One: Build Relationships

During the height of the campaign by the Church of Scientology to isolate us and paint us as monsters, we understandably were dispirited and a little frightened. After all, if legislatures could restrict lifesaving treatments based on a propaganda of hate, how could we possibly prevail using logic and science? What chance did our patients, many of whom live on the fringes of society, have to advocate for themselves? How could we fight the battle against Scientology slander while we and our patients were crippled by the pervasive stigma surrounding the mentally ill and those of us who care for them? After much reflection, I believe that the Scientologists were stopped by John Bush and Debbie Sundberg. I know they won’t like me to say this, but we psychiatrists were suffering from substantial “issues with self-esteem.” Our very character as a profession, and by extension, as individual human beings was under attack. It was difficult for us physicians to heal ourselves when we were so dispirited. John and Debbie saw the good in us and helped us to rise above our hurt and fear. They relentlessly prodded and encouraged us and helped strengthen us for the fight. We discovered that we really had gone into medicine “to help people,” and with dawning gratitude and hope, we began to recognize that those people—our patients—knew it. The development of our ongoing Advocacy Coalition in those ECT years has proved invaluable as we have struggled with other threats: funding cuts, drug formularies, and renegade psychologists. That was our first lesson: build relationships.


Lesson Two: Build Relationships

Although the various TSPP presidents have focused on a number of different issues during their terms, all have had to deal with legislative realities. This legislative continuity has led our leaders to create programs which have strengthened our ability to effectively influence the legislature. The Political Action Task Force program developed in 1998 has served as a vehicle for Texas psychiatry to work with local legislators. The relationships built as a result of the Political Action Task Force program, executed at the grassroots level through TSPPs 18 Chapters, were key in defeating the psychology prescribing bills introduced in 2001 and 2003. I believe that those relationships have prevented a psychology prescribing bill from even being filed (thus far) this year. The psychiatric leadership in Hawaii credited their recent victory, in part, to their hosting of an annual legislative reception. Our ongoing work in building a Key Legislative Contacts Database has facilitated liaisons with legislators that are not restricted to the legislative session, but which operate year round. I believe that it’s because of these contacts, nurtured outside of the legislative arena in Austin that we have not yet had to endure a tense floor vote on a psychology prescribing bill such as the one Hawaii narrowly won by a 12-12 tie.


Lesson Three: Build Relationships

Five years ago, TSPP forged a new relationship with our extraordinary lobbyist, Steve Bresnen. The major factor in our choosing Steve to represent our interests was his clear commitment to ethical representation for his clients. He works with groups in whom he believes and his faith in us has enabled us to forge a true bond with him that transcends that of employer/employee. During internal struggles as well as struggles with the APA, Steve Bresnen has been patient, and has continued to fight for our interests even when we were distracted. He supported us during hard times with sage advice and unflagging confidence in our causes. Steve has worked heroically to learn our issues and has developed a real understanding of the complexity of psychiatric practice as well as mental illness. In contrast, the psychologists have depended on short-term alliances with expensive lobbyists. The money they have thrown at the efforts at prescribing have failed while our honest and ongoing relationships have continued to work for us. In discussions with legislators, not one of them ever fails to speak highly of Steve. They know they can trust him, and we are proud to say he represents us.


Lesson Four: Build Relationships

Over the past few years, we have been extremely fortunate in developing an ongoing relationship with Joel Roberts, a nationally renowned media consultant. On the personal side, we have seen him through the difficult rehabilitation following a bicycle accident and were able to congratulate him on his recent marriage. Joel has committed to an ongoing campaign to help dispel the stigma surrounding mental illness, the mentally ill, and those of us who care for them. He has worked with us in media training as well as helping us hone our message for legislative purposes. He has offered to be available, on call, to any one of us who has a media opportunity and would like preparatory help. Perhaps most valuable, he has also worked with our partners in the Mental Illness Awareness Coalition established by TSPP in 1995 (NAMI Texas, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, Mental Health Association, Texas Mental Health Consumers, and the Texas Medical Association). That work, which we were able to facilitate, provided our coalition partners a level of sophistication in their media and legislative relationships that will serve them well in years to come. The fact that we made that possible further strengthens our relationships with members of the Coalition.


Lesson Five: Build Relationships

As part of our ongoing Capitol Day events, conducted at the beginning of each Legislative Session since 1995, we have reached out to include psychiatric residents in our legislative efforts. Residents have been able to join other TSPP members, Coalition partners, and Joel Roberts in the media training and legislative visits. During that process, these trainees were given the opportunity to work closely with Joel and to accompany senior TSPP members as we went door-to-door educating legislators. I’m thrilled to report that these trainees quickly became proficient enough that they needed no supervision in their legislative work. Ultimately, they taught us a number of things about effective advocacy because of their fresh view of the process. Their empowerment in Austin has infused our efforts with renewed vigor and we have been so grateful for the relationships we have developed with these impressive young physicians.


Lesson Six: Build Relationships

Texas organized psychiatry has always striven to forge a strong and effective relationship with the Texas Medical Association and with our colleagues in other medical specialty organizations. The relationship we enjoy with the House of Medicine has been helpful to us in many legislative battles, and conversely, we have contributed to successful legislative outcomes for other branches of medicine. These informal relationships were formalized this year with the establishment of the PatientsFIRST Coalition, organized to work on scope of practice issues impacting each medical specialty. The PatientsFIRST Coalition, representing over 41,000 Texas physicians, includes the Texas Association of Obstetrics/Gynecology, the Texas College of Emergency Physicians, the Texas Ophthoalmological Association, the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association, the Texas Pediatric Society, the Texas Society of Anesthesiologists, the Texas Society of Plastic Surgeons, the Texas Medical Association and the Federation of Texas Psychiatry. Not only are our colleagues in other specialty organizations educating legislators about the threats to patient safety and patient care by psychologists prescribing of medications, Texas organized psychiatry is actively helping with scope of practice issues involving podiatrists, optometrists, CRNAs, and other allied health professionals. The relationship with organized medicine is vital to our success.


Lesson Seven: Build Relationships

One of the more subtle lessons I’ve learned from these past years is that the art of organizational compromise and agreement is essential to success. Perhaps part of the reason the psychologists have failed to gain prescribing privileges legislatively is that the psychologists themselves are divided on the issue. In fact, a determined and articulate psychologist joined us on Capitol Day and provided insight into the issue. We proved that we are grateful for the opportunity to work with psychology in taking care of patients, but are not willing to compromise patient safety in order to appease the strident group who aims to practice medicine without a license. It is probably clear to the legislature that psychology can’t agree on its own agenda and, of course, that hurts their cause.


Lesson Eight: Build Relationships

At the risk of being effusive, out of the ashes of the realization that our vision of how best to represent Texas psychiatrists has sprung what promises to be an important organizational model: the Federation of Texas Psychiatry. Under the aegis of the Federation, TSPP, the Academy of Texas Psychiatry and the Texas Society of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have united to present one strong voice for our profession here in Texas. The Federation has allowed us to reconnect with the child and adolescent psychiatrists and offer them representation. We have welcomed psychiatrists not previously involved in organized psychiatry into the growing voice of our profession here in Texas. In short, the Federation of Texas Psychiatry is rapidly forging relationships within our own profession. With increasing numbers, we will be more effective legislatively, a benefit to our profession and to our patients.