A group of leaders and advocates from the disabled community gathered on August 8th to hear from 1st-term Fourth District Representative Betty McCollum about her first few months in Washington. The event was arranged by Advocating Change Together (ACT) and held in the Griggs Midway building in St. Paul. Those present were first introduced to Brad Robideau, McCollum’s newly-hired Home Office District Director. Robideau has Minnesota roots as well as 12 years of experience in Washington, including work for former vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman. Attendees were encouraged to use Robideau as a contact person at the local office.
When asked to give a summary of her first months in office, McCollum focused immediately on topics of interest to the audience. The congresswoman started by highlighting the general lack of accessibility in government office buildings. Although she considers herself fortunate to have an office on the first floor, she detailed her staff’s struggles to work within a small space and with inflexible desk furniture. McCollum proudly reported that the office arrangement is now a success in terms of accessibility, a point confirmed by long-time advocate Jeff Bangsberg and others who have visited the office. Other key topics included the struggle to decide where scarce funds for medical research will do the most good, the risk that the federal Patients Bill of Rights now under consideration might weaken the superior system we have in Minnesota, and the senselessness of people feeling that they must resort to importing prescription drugs.
McCollum also expressed some disillusionment with the inefficient workings of government and the lack of time (and care) spent on critical issues. For example, the federal tax rebate, while apparently welcomed by taxpayers, was accompanied by the government needlessly spending a large sum of money sending letters to remind Americans to be on the lookout for their rebates. Regarding the previously-mentioned Patients Bill of Rights, McCollum felt that the President’s lack of positive action was damaging. (Subsequent to the meeting, in an August 21st press release, McCollum expressed her displeasure with Bush’s decision to withdraw rights guaranteed by the Clinton administration, stating that the President has “weakened patient protections for Medicaid enrollees, our country’s neediest, and has created a possible loophole for states and managed care organizations to get around providing needed access to care.”)
After McCollum’s update, there was a question-and-answer period. The congresswoman fielded questions on such topics as accessible housing, Medicare, TEFRA, and PCAs. The congresswoman’s response to the problem of keeping a high level of quality PCAs in the workforce stood out. Looking beyond the ongoing problems of the lack of benefits and low wages for PCAs, McCollum shared some innovative ideas on how to attract new workers to this field. She suggested getting 2-year commitments from pre-social work students or using Americorps volunteers to fill PCA positions. Another suggestion came from attendee Deb Tompkins, who advocated giving consumers the funds to pay PCAs directly, thus cutting out the middle-man. McCollum agreed that it would be better to let PCA users manage their own affairs in this way.
Throughout the meeting, the crowd seemed to enjoy addressing McCollum as congresswoman (rather than representative) in order to celebrate the historical rarity of having a Minnesota woman in this position. As the gathering concluded, McCollum reiterated what she had stressed all along: that constituents should feel free to contact her St. Paul office with questions, concerns, and suggestions. She said that the daily volume of requests for her attention to new legislation is huge and comes from many sources. Her staff sorts and prioritizes all requests, and she emphasized that it is helpful if local voters contact her office to provide feedback on the issues of importance to us. The contact information is:
Congresswoman Betty McCollum
165 Western Ave. N.
St. Paul, MN 55102
(651) 224-3056 (FAX)