HAN Intern Reflects on Advocacy Lessons Learned on the Hill
by Ethan Avery, NHPCO / HAN Advocacy Intern, Summer 2023
My name is Ethan Avery, and I’m currently a third-year student majoring in public policy leadership through the Trent Lott Institute at the University of Mississippi. I’ve focused my studies on healthcare social issues. Some areas of special interest to me are Medicare expansion, compassionate care for the seriously ill, and the affordability of medicine. When I’m done with my undergraduate studies, I hope to move on to law school. From there, I’d like to work in the DC area as either a lobbyist or a legal consultant, helping a cause I think is making a difference. I spent eight weeks this summer as an intern with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) and its advocacy affiliate, the Hospice Action Network (HAN).
Before I tell you about my summer internship, I’d like to take a step back and start with my interest in healthcare. I spent much of my life in Madison, Mississippi, a small town just outside of Jackson. As someone interested in politics, being so close to the state capital was a great experience and incredibly informative. I spent some time in high school working as a page for the Mississippi state House of Representatives. While I found the working pace to be a bit too slow for me due to the gridlock that often comes when attempting to pass laws from opposing views. Still, I knew I wanted to be in politics, so if state politics weren’t for me, maybe Congress would be different.
When it comes to hospice as an issue, I have personal experience as I lost a grandfather to cancer many years ago now. I never got to meet him but have heard so much about him. He was a hard worker and provided for a family of four kids until his checkup came back with a cancer diagnosis. He was left with a six-month terminal prognosis. In the end, he turned to suicide in response to the painful disease, a very human and understandable move. Yet, I have always wondered if things would have been different if hospice’s benefits were better advertised. The idea of illness without pain could have left my family with more closure than we got.
Given that information, it shouldn’t surprise you that working with NHPCO and HAN was a dream internship for me. It was a unique opportunity to work for and advocate on behalf of an underrepresented form of healthcare like hospice with the nation’s largest and oldest hospice membership association.
I never expected to be talking to congressional staff on my second day of work. I especially didn’t expect to sit in on meetings with congressional staff during one of HAN’s biggest weeks of the year, “Hospice Action Week”. During Hospice Action Week, advocates from across the country joined together to appeal to legislators as constituents and educators. I was thrown into the deep-end on the advocacy side of things and ended up attending five meetings with congressional staff back to back. Personally, I think that was the best way to learn, and would do it again in a heartbeat, even if my feet would disagree. While I didn’t think about this as a golden opportunity at first, eventually I realized how lucky I was to be here as a junior in college, actually on the Hill, not as a tourist but as a part of the ecosystem. It felt like a monumental milestone in my career ambitions and tangible progress from where I started as a page in my freshman year of high school.
With this amazing opportunity came the chance to meet wonderful advocates for the cause from across the nation (some from as far away as California) to help us better educate Congressional members on a uniting issue. This was a golden opportunity to learn from some of the most experienced in a field I was a bit new to. While I study policy and had experience with hospice through family ties, hospice advocacy was new. Learning from people who have been working, and advocating, for hospice was a great way to hit the ground running.
Still, in some ways, it felt like we were learning together. Some hospice advocates hadn’t been to the Hill in years and for a few, it was their first time! Every meeting with a congressional staffer was a chance to learn, and at times, react on the fly. For example, sometimes you have a last-minute meeting with a Senate staffer and then have only 15 minutes to complete a 20-minute walk to meet with an office on the House side. Things don’t always go as planned, but it’s your reaction to the change in plans that shows your character (like sprinting across the Hill to a meeting 20 minutes away in dress shoes)!
As tired as I may have been after Hospice Action Week, the true learning curve started the next day. I have grown since I started my internship, from honing my skills with Excel and learning the “merge function” to finding elusive contact info and representative information. I have learned a variety of new skills on the job. Was it hard at first? Sure, but it will always be hard to learn new things. This just allowed me to learn these useful office skills early.
The working environment at NHPCO has been great. When I first got to DC, I came alone. I had no idea if I would make any friends out here or not. Luckily, everyone in the NHPCO office has been beyond friendly, including the four other interns from other departments who I’ve loved hanging out with. From being treated to skits by coworkers during organization retreats, to improv filming for the intern presentation, everything has been a blast. Every single NHPCO employee I’ve asked has agreed to chat with me over lunch and answer questions in a heartbeat.
I learned more about hospice and palliative care, read touching stories going through the HAN website, and was able to come to better understand my family and friends who work in hospice care. As someone driven by the cause they’re working for, it was reassuring to hear such sincere reasons for why people choose hospice as their cause. This is something that I think is necessary for a good advocacy organization, and it makes Excel all the more bearable to figure out.
Overall, I knew this would be a good experience. Advocacy for a health-based cause at a federal level just fit my interests too well for it not to be enjoyable. Even knowing that going in, the workplace culture and the skills I obtained blew me away. There wasn’t a single day where I didn’t learn something, either on the job or at the watercooler. I’m incredibly grateful for the chance to make my contributions to a great organization and a wonderful cause.