VP&S Students Travel to Albany, Meet with Legislators for Advocacy Day
A group of medical students from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons spent the day in Albany on Jan. 31, meeting with legislators and other policymakers to advocate for key issues important to the future physicians, including the New York Health Act and other bills intended to improve health throughout New York state.
Acting as individual constituents, the students met with policymakers and discussed issues related to improving patient care, promoting public health and reproductive rights, and addressing health inequities and environmental and housing justice. In particular, many students advocated on behalf of the New York Health Act, which would create a single-payer system with the goal of providing universal health care for all New York residents.
The advocacy day was the first of its kind for VP&S students. The idea stemmed from earlier meetings between Columbia University Irving Medical Center leadership and a group of students, including members of the Columbia chapter of White Coats for Black Lives, a movement dedicated to dismantling racism and accompanying systems of oppression in health care.
“Our students who come to Columbia are strong changemakers in and of themselves,” says Monica Lypson, MD, vice dean for education at VP&S. “We recognized that the day was an important educational opportunity for the students, providing a way to make real-life connections between what they learn in the curriculum and public policy outside the institution.”
In these earlier meetings, university leadership agreed to provide resources for students to advocate as individual citizens in Albany, including hosting an advocacy training session with Ross Frommer, vice president for government & community affairs at CUIMC. Frommer also helped arrange meetings for the students with policymakers, including those who were supportive of the legislation they advocated for and some who were not.
The students used their experience caring for underserved patients to inform their agenda and approach to advocacy. Sara Keshavjee, a fourth-year medical student and a co-leader of the student-run free clinics at VP&S, has seen firsthand the challenges uninsured patients face in accessing quality health care.
“All the politicians we met with were excited to hear our perspective on what patients are really facing,” Keshavjee says. “They were supportive of the concept of the New York Health Act but also had other concerns like union and constituent support for the bill and other agendas that they were more concerned about. As residents of New York state, we need to put pressure on from the bottom up and tell people we really care about moving these issues forward.”
The students met with a variety of officials, including NYS Commissioner of Health James V. McDonald, MD; state Sen. Robert Jackson; state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who chairs the Senate Health Committee; and Upper Manhattan assembly members Al Taylor and Manny De Los Santos, among others.
“When we were given this opportunity, we didn’t just want to shake hands and take pictures,” says Cameron Clarke, a third-year student at VP&S. “As medical students and constituents, we’re in a unique and valuable position to influence policy, and there’s weight to what we’re seeing in the clinic and the hospital throughout our training. The current system is not what we’d like to see as we go into practice, and it’s impacting our decisions in terms of where and how we want to practice medicine. That’s why the things we’re pushing for are critical to our patients.”
Going forward, Clarke hopes to continue to leverage the university’s resources and the students’ connections with progressive organizations in New York City to further the students' advocacy efforts.
“We’re trying to set up ongoing relationships with the legislators we met with so that we can push them, keep them engaged, and challenge them when they need to be challenged,” Clarke says. “If this advocacy day could be the beginning of a consistent, sustainable, and engaged medical student community, that would be a great outcome.”
To learn more about the medical students’ policy priorities, see their agenda, “Not Just Healthcare."