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AARP AARP States Advocacy

Volunteer Advocates Weigh In on Policy

Jean Nofles, 70, of Aurora, is one of nearly two dozen AARP volunteer legislative advocates who help explain to lawmakers the effects of prospective legislation on their older constituents. Photo by Matt Slaby
Matt Slaby/LUCEO

By Roger Fillion 

After her daughter-in-law became ill from diabetes complications several years ago, Jean Nofles tried to enroll her in Medicaid, the federal-state health program for low-
income people.

But even though Nofles, 70, of Aurora, was a former Colorado manager for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the effort became a multi-week, bureaucratic nightmare.

The experience propelled her to become a volunteer legislative advocate in 2006 for AARP Colorado with a particular interest in Medicaid and health policy issues.

Nofles is one of nearly two dozen AARP Colorado legislative advocates who buttonhole state lawmakers and congressional staffers at the Capitol or in their offices.

Volunteers send emails, testify before legislative panels and huddle with members of other advocacy organizations.

“We explain the real effects of the bills on their [50-plus] constituents,” Nofles said.

No experience necessary

Advocacy volunteers include attorneys, teachers, pharmaceutical researchers, a certified public accountant, a hospital administrator, a utility executive—even a rocket scientist. But no particular experience is necessary. The volunteer program began even before the AARP Colorado office opened in 1993.

“They bring different skill sets to the table,” said Kelli Fritts, AARP Colorado associate director for advocacy. “They have a passion for making the world a better place.”

When Colorado lawmakers are in session—from early January to early May—the legislative advocates meet for about two hours every Monday at the AARP Colorado office in Denver. They discuss pending legislation, talk strategy and get feedback on testimony they plan to give.

Each advocate specializes in an issue such as Social Security, Medicare, long-term care or public utilities.

At one Monday meeting of advocacy volunteers, roughly 15 people sat around a rectangular table. A few others joined via conference call. A screen displayed summaries of two bills before the Colorado Senate, with the notation “strongly support” next to one and “monitor” next to the other.

One bill involved expanding eligibility for Medicaid. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Medicaid expansion contained in the 2010 Affordable Care Act is optional for states, the expansion has been a top AARP priority. The bill was signed into law in May.

“I want feedback on the approach I’m going to be taking” on the expansion bill, said A.W. Schnellbacher Jr., 71, who was scheduled to testify before a state Senate panel.

Schnellbacher, of Littleton, told colleagues he was armed with studies and literature from both sides of the debate. He decided to focus on how Medicaid expansion would help people who qualify in the 50-to-64 age group.

On-the-job training

Schnellbacher—who retired in 2003 and was also a CMS manager in Colorado—has been a legislative advocate for nine years.

He learned the ropes from veteran advocates and in turn has passed on his advice and knowledge as a mentor to Nofles. “He would take me over to meet various legislators. I would shadow him when he gave testimony,” Nofles said. “Much of it was on-the-job training.”

To stay informed, legislative advocates scan media reports, tune in to hearings online, read bills, research lawmakers and read letters to the editor in a legislator’s local newspaper to see what voters are saying.

Usually the Colorado volunteers track roughly 40 bills each legislative session. Fritts said AARP advocates spend four or five hours weekly on their duties during that period. The group gets guidance from the AARP Colorado advocacy staff, but they decide which bills to support, oppose or monitor through consensus or a vote.

To become an advocacy volunteer, call Kelli Fritts at 303-764-5991 or 866-554-5376 toll-free.

Roger Fillion is a writer living in Evergreen, Colo.

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