Letter-Writing Campaigns: The Essential Grassroots Action


What is a letter writing campaign?

A letter writing campaign is an easy, effective advocacy tool by which a group of constituents voice their opinions about specific issues. The letters may be directed toward the president, a member of Congress, or a particular government agency. Knowing that reelection depends on the votes of their constituents, Senators and Representatives pay close attention to the mail they receive.

Why organize a letter writing campaign?

Legislators are there on Capitol Hill to represent us, the people. The letter serves to educate the target person/audience about an issue and explains why you feel they should take action for/against that issue. Receiving a swarm of constituent mail can greatly impact the way a legislator votes on a particular issue. Letter writing campaigns are also a useful way to:

  1. Educate medical students about issues that will affect them. Through this process, students learn about events happening outside of medical school – events that will change the way they practice medicine into the next century.
  2. Get involved in political activism by expressing your opinions to your legislators. You are not only participating in the democratic process, but also affecting the outcome.
  3. Carve out an identity for your chapter. At many medical schools, local AMSA chapters are but one organization among many groups competing for student membership, time and resources. In the past, many chapter officers have had difficulty explaining how AMSA is different and why students should join. Two words: Legislative Action. Few national student organizations are politically active, and even fewer serve as an independent voice for students. Legislative projects at your chapter will highlight this unique benefit of AMSA membership and help carve out a niche for your chapter.

Choose an Issue

  • Select issues that interest your chapter. See AMSA’s Health Policy webpage as well as individual action committee pages for ideas on what issues are currently hot.
  • Try to follow these issues and any corresponding legislation closely in order to know when a bill will be voted on.
  • Check the status of the bills at least twice a week to find out when a piece of legislation will go to committee or to the floor for a vote. When it does, you can intervene by holding your letter-writing campaign.

Here are some resources to help with tracking the legislation:

  • Thomas, The Library of Congress Web site, contains a database of all legislation proposed in the current Congress.
  • The House and Senate home pages have both floor and committee schedules.
  • Interest groups and organizations (for example, Physicians for a National Health ProgramRESULTS, Public Citizen, among others)are often the ones who follow bills most closely. Contact these groups and maintain a regular correspondence.
  • The local office of your senator or representative. You are a constituent, and the staffers at your legislator’s home office are more than eager to help you stay informed.

Hold the Event

Letter-writing campaigns are most effective when you get together with everyone in a room and have them write the letters on the spot.  If you want people to hand write a note, consider using creative and recognizable cards.  For example, a holiday card with a piece of coal for a letter on AIDS funding, “Don’t give AIDS patients coal for Christmas…Fund PEPFAR!”.

One strategy you can use to get people involved is to schedule a speaker on the topic and hold the letter writing just after the session (email eaf@amsa.org to help with scheduling speakers/webinars!).  Another strategy would be to position yourself in a busy area, perhaps outside of a lecture hall around the time that hall will let out, and to have students stop to sign postcards and make calls on the spot as they pass by.

Pointers for Letters to you Senator

1. Identify the legislation you are writing about according to its House bill number (e.g., H. XXXX) and/or the Senate bill number (S. 952). This way, they know exactly what you’re talking about.

2. Include information that supports your position and how the proposed legislation or issue affects you personally. Anecdotal evidence is the most effective and persuasive lobbying tool.

3. Offer your expertise if it is relevant. Believe it or not, as a medical student you may have experiential or trained expertise that may be useful to legislators.

4. Use simple language (within reason). Staff workers in Congressional offices are not experts on all issues. An example: the term “kidney doctor” may be more understandable than “nephrologist.”

5. Always ask the senator or representative for something. This can be support of a certain bill, co-sponsorship of a bill, or you may want the legislator to introduce legislation.

6. Always thank the senator or representative for something. You can thank them for their time, their effort or for their support of legislation.

7. Include your name and address so that you may receive a response.

8. If you have time, consider writing a longer personal business style letter.  Personal letters are much more effective lobbying efforts than postcards, petitions or even phone calls because they show more effort!

9.Consider having people make phone calls!  These are also very important lobbying tools and do not take much time.

 

SAMPLE BUSINESS SYTLE LETTER

Chris McCoy
1902 Association Drive
Reston, VA 20191

The Honorable John Warner
U.S. Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator Warner:

As a constituent and a medical student, I want to express my support for S. 1297, limiting resident-physician work hours.

Physicians-in-training, known as residents, often work up to 36-hour shifts and up to 140 hours per week. I believe that this is dangerous for patients and professionals. A recent study found that after 24 hours of wakefulness, cognitive function deteriorated to a level equivalent to having a 0.1% blood alcohol level. Additionally, sleepy doctors make 36% more mistakes in the intensive care unit than well-rested physicians.

I went to medical school to be able to provide high quality health care, but it discourages me to see medical professionals falling asleep during surgery, being curt with their patients, and making medical errors all because they are not allowed time to sleep.

Recently, 60% of 4,500 OB/GYN residents surveyed said that the hours they work may compromise the quality of care they give. The people who are delivering babies and performing cancer surgery have said they need fewer hours to perform their job competently, yet the professional association responsible for changing the status quo has done nothing!

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education issued new regulations regarding resident work hours, to go into effect July 1, 2003. These regulations, however, provide for many loopholes that may do little to relieve resident fatigue or improve patient safety. This legislation would provide for greater accountability and enforcement than the ACGME’s guidelines. The legislation also calls for public disclosure of hospitals found in violation of resident work hour rules, something not included in the current regulations.

Please contact Jon Luick in Mr. Corzine’s at (202) 224-4744 to offer your support or Chris McCoy, the American Medical Student Association Legislative Affairs Director, at 703-620-6600 x211 for more information on the topic of overworked residents. Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely

Chris McCoy