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It was all there, perfectly staged to grab the spotlight. Last month congressmen gathered in a clump behind the podium while wheelchair-bound people crowded the room in the House Rayburn Office Building. They were there for a press conference tailor-made to raise the profile of H.R. 2231, a measure that would exempt complex wheelchairs and other specialized rehabilitative equipment from Medicare’s competitive bidding requirements. Unfortunately, Congress didn’t fall into line with the plan — a buzzer kept sounding, signaling vote after vote on the House floor and forcing legislators who backed the measure to say a few words then duck out to cast their votes. Speakers in wheelchairs passed the microphone back and forth, sharing their experiences — and buying time. The votes kept a key backer of the bill, Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.), from showing up until the end of the press conference. So it goes for H.R. 2231, legislation which wheelchair users say is key to their good health and mobility. The bill is competing with far sexier topics in its bid to capture the attention of Congress and the public, such as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the children’s health care program that was on the House floor that same day. Guess which measure got play in the press? So how does one beat the drum for a lower-flying bill like H.R. 2231, which enjoys bipartisan support but affects few and lacks an easy foothold in the public’s imagination? The bill is competing with more sweeping measures for time and attention, the timing is working against its supporters, and no one’s re-election depends on jobs related to complex wheelchair manufacturing. That’s the challenge facing Quinn Gillespie & Associates, the firm hired over the summer to promote the bill and keep it from becoming one of the thousands orphaned each year in committee. “This is clearly a project where noise helps us,” says Jeffrey Connaughton, vice chairman of Quinn Gillespie. LOOKING TO CATCH A RIDE Complex wheelchairs are different from the kind most people use when they break a leg. They serve patients with debilitating problems such as spina bifida or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Backers say that the possible modifications to such chairs are complicated and almost endless — and that if manufacturers are forced to participate in competitive bidding, they’ll offer fewer customizing options, hurting some of the most vulnerable patients. Backers of the bill compare the chairs to prosthetics, which are not competitively bid. A complex wheelchair costs between $15,000 and $25,000, according to the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology — at least three times the cost of a basic chair. “Every aspect of this chair is so incredibly customized to leverage the strength I have, the balance that I have,” says Selene Faer Dalton-Kumins, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy. “The detrimental effects of the wrong equipment” cannot be overstated, she says. Dalton-Kumins, the director of MetroAccess in Washington, says she spent three months in a poorly fitted chair, and permanently lost 50 percent of the use she had previously had in her right arm because of it. NCART, the trade association that represents the manufacturers of complex rehabilitative equipment, has only 54 members — tiny by Washington standards. “Our members are not in that many districts and that many states,” says Sharon Hildebrandt, executive director of NCART and the organization’s only full-time staff member. “We felt we needed additional juice.” Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) filed the legislation in May and it was referred to the House subcommittee on health. By July, NCART went looking for that additional juice, and hired Quinn Gillespie for $25,000 a month under a six-month contract that began in mid-July. Hildebrandt says the association chose Quinn Gillespie after meeting with two other firms because the firm was more “well rounded,” with a combination of contacts and PR savvy. “We felt that they were well connected on the Hill,” she says. “They could get us in to see the people we needed to see.” Hildebrandt says NCART is happy with the firm so far, and with the meetings it’s been able to set up. But despite that, the bill hasn’t moved. The team working on the NCART issue includes Allison Giles, a former chief of staff for the House Ways and Means Committee, and Bonnie Hogue Duffy, who heads the firm’s health care practice. The team realized pretty quickly that one idea — attaching the bill to the certain-to-move SCHIP legislation — wasn’t going to work because the bill badly needed a Democratic champion on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Members had already turned in priority lists for that legislation to committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), and it was too late to find a Democratic backer for the complex rehab equipment cause. In a meeting, committee staff members were sympathetic, Connaughton says, but couldn’t help. Lewis, a Republican, backs the bill but couldn’t get it included in the legislation. Allen isn’t on Ways and Means. That left the lobbyists with the idea of raising awareness and scouting for legislative supporters with pull who could tout the bill at the next opportunity. Eleven of the bill’s 20 co-sponsors have signed on since July 12, the effective date of Quinn Gillespie’s lobbying registration, though it’s impossible to tell whether some were already planning to support the bill. Still, the co-sponsors haven’t been able to get it passed, and Quinn Gillespie is still looking to add clout. SUPERMAN’S FREEDOM MACHINE Connaughton is hoping for press coverage that can give the bill what he calls a “tailwind,” and of course public relations is a large part of Quinn Gillespie’s DNA. One notable example is their work for Hewlett-Packard in a high-profile proxy fight under then-CEO Carly Fiorina. And their public relations staffers also serve their lobbying clients. But on this bill, that kind of publicity push hasn’t yielded as much as Connaughton hoped. Quinn Gillespie has pitched the story to major news organizations, and reporters have expressed interest, though none have written anything yet. Some reporters have also asked whether there’s a veterans’ angle (there isn’t), and whether Quinn Gillespie can prove competitive bidding will have dire repercussions (which haven’t happened yet). “How can you prove it? How can you prove this is going to have the effect you say it’s going to have?” Connaughton asks. “It’s a preventative case we’re making — don’t let this happen. That’s a harder case than �You made a mistake several years ago and here’s the proof.’” The key, Connaughton believes, is putting people who depend on such equipment front and center — in op-eds, press conferences, TV spots if possible — and building momentum that will attract influential backers. The campaign’s current catchphrase is “freedom machine,” coined by a complex wheelchair user named Tom Connors who wrote an op-ed for The Hill in August. Connaughton grabbed the phrase and ran with it. Since then, Quinn Gillespie’s been pushing “freedom machine” as the brand for the campaign, using it to explain the importance of the chairs and how they differ from basic wheelchairs. Connaughton and communications staffer Ashley Prime say they’ve worked hard to explain why the wheelchairs and rehabilitative equipment they’re talking about are so specialized and complex. Prime says she also frequently explains to people that the wheelchair is the type used by the late “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a 1995 horseback riding accident and became a prominent advocate for stem cell research before his death in 2004. H.R. 2231 is still in committee, and the backers know this congressional session is crowded. Quinn Gillespie’s lobbyists have met with almost two dozen uncommitted House members and are also approaching senators, continuing efforts to drum up support among lawmakers on key committees. Earlier this month, entertainer Jerry Lewis, the national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, endorsed the bill. Connaughton says Quinn Gillespie is hoping Lewis will be able to come to Washington and lobby Congress on its behalf or be active in other ways. After the press conference last month, one attendee, Jan Mitchell, who is also Ms. Wheelchair Ohio for 2007, met with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). Connaughton isn’t ruling out more face-to-face constituent meetings, if needed. “These people are not chasing their members down the hall, but it may come to that,” he says. Connaughton is still keeping an eye out for something that can piggyback the bill through Congress — perhaps Medicare legislation, or a returned SCHIP. “We’ve got to get some kind of breakthrough on some front,” he says. Or, at least, get lawmakers’ attention.
Carrie Levine can be contacted at [email protected].

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