Brenda Novak looked at the clock. In four hours, the state legislature would adjourn for the year.
She and Herb Kolodny had come so far. They’d enlisted fellow amputees from all over Connecticut to urge the legislature to pass a new law. They’d convinced legislators to take up the cause. Lobbyists helped them get the bill passed in the State Senate. As other hard-fought bills died.
But now it appeared they’d come up short at the very end.
“If it doesn’t pass this year,” Novak consoled herself, “we laid a great foundation for next year.”
And then ... a friend showed her how to stop a key legislator on the way to the bathroom. Moments later, the bill was called in the State House of Representatives. It passed.
Weeks later the governor added his signature. And Senate Bill 376 — requiring insurance companies to cover prosthetic limbs for people who have lost an arm or a leg— became the law in the Land of Steady Habits.
It was a remarkable victory for a duo of citizen organizers making their first effort to influence government. Especially in an even-numbered year, when the state legislature meets in a short session and fewer bills get passed. Connecticut, where an estimated 1,850 people lose a limb each year, joined 20 other states, including the rest of New England, in adding this requirement.
How did Kolodny and Novak do it? With strategy, persistence, and a little good fortune. In an interview on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program, they walked listeners through the four steps to victory.
Step 1: Meet With Your Local Rep
Kolodny lost a leg to cancer, Novak to an accident in Mali, when a water tower collapsed on her. They met rock climbing at Gaylord Hospital and decided to take on this issue together.
Kolody had taken a training course for people with disabilities about how to become advocates. He learned there that when you want to see a law passed, you begin with the representatives from your home district. And come prepared.
So he started with State Sen. George Logan. Logan met him at Three Brothers Diner just over the New Haven border in Hamden. Kolodny brought a one-page fact sheet. “I also waved a flash drive in front of him and said, ‘Here’s my research.’” Logan gave Kolodny a full hour to make his case. Kolody then asked him to support a bill for the insurance mandate.
The training course had advised Kolodny not to expect the elected official to say yes at the first meeting.
Logan said yes.
So did Ted Kennedy Jr., Novak’s state senator, when they met. Kennedy, a disability rights activist himself, came to the meeting prepared with his own research about the fate of similar bills in the past. State Rep. Sean Scanlon of Branford, who happens to be the House co-chair of the Insurance committee, also agreed to support it.
Because this year was a short session for the legislature, those elected officials couldn’t introduce bills. They had to convince a legislative committee to raise it. Kolodny and Novak followed up with their representatives, who agreed to write to the Senate co-chairs of the Insurance Committee, Tim Larson and Kenneth Kelley. The co-chairs agreed to raise the bill. Senate Bill 376 was born.
Step 2: Organize Grassroots Support
Meanwhile, Kolody and Novak visited amputee support groups around the state to pitch the bill. They drew up an email list, encouraged people to email legislators. They formed an organization called Connecticut Amputee Network (with a positive acronym: CAN). All raised bills get committee hearings; they worked to bring speakers to tell their stories.
Step 3: Get Personal, & Factual
The hearing took place a day after a snowstorm. Three of CAN’s speakers couldn’t get out of their driveways to the hearing.
Six did make it. So did representatives of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the state government’s insurance department; they opposed the bill for creating a new mandate.
Kolodny and Novak prepared their team to combine their personal stories with a distilled theme (“Arms and legs are not luxuries”; “This is a rights issue”) and factual arguments, including a rebuttal to the argument that the bill would cost the state money. The Office of Fiscal Analysis had prepared a statement that the state would need to pay an extra $600,000 the first year and $1.2 million the second to cover government insurance for prosthetics.
“We wildly disagreed with their conclusions,” Kolodny recalled, once the broader savings to society are figured in for people who can get out of the house and lead more productive lives with functioning limbs.
In the end, the committee disregarded OFA’s fiscal note and overwhelmingly approved the bill, in a bipartisan vote. A Senate vote followed. The bill was on its way ...
Step 4: Block The Bathroom
... or so it seemed. Days went by, and then session entered its final hours — without the measure coming before the House for a debate and vote. Without that vote, it would die.
In the final weeks, CAN developed new allies: Lobbyists who took a personal interest in the bill, like Caroline Ray, a Hartford oncologist whose 16-year-old daughter lost a limb. “She energized the medical community up in Hartford,” including lobbyists from St. Francis Hospital, Kolodny said.
Another lobbyist offered a crucial piece of advice on that final day. Novak and Kolodny were up at the Capitol, watching the bill not get called. An AT&T lobbyist asked what they had heard about the prospects; they said they hadn’t heard any updates. You need to get an update every two hours from your legislative allies, he informed them.
Then they noticed Rep. Scanlon heading for a bathroom break. The lobbyist “lined up and blocked him from going to the men’s room,” Novak recalled. They all asked Scanlon for an update. Scanlon returned to the floor — and “minutes later” the bill was called. No debate ensued. It passed, again with overwhelming bipartisan support.
“I was stunned,” Novak recalled.
A few nail-biting weeks ensued while the pair waited to see if Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would sign the bill. Allies instructed them to wait first before calling out the troops to lobby the governor. Finally, on May 25 , Malloy did sign it, with a written warning to legislature not to pass unfunded mandates.
Novak and Kolodny were overjoyed: Their first foray into Capitol advocacy had changed Connecticut’s law and given new hope to thousands of future amputees.
But they vowed not to rest on their laurels. Their next step: “Fighting insurance denials.” Informing amputees about their new rights under the law, and making sure insurance companies don’t weasle out of their new legal obligation to cover prosthetics.
Anyone taking bets on whether insurers will prove an even harder sell than lawmakers?
Click on the above audio file or Facebook Live video below to hear the full interview with Herb Kolodny and Brenda Novak on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program.