Determined Father Learns the Ropes in Olympia, Advances Bill

Sep 3, 2013

There are nearly 900 registered lobbyists in Washington state. These are the paid professionals who try to influence the outcome of the legislative process.

But this year, a determined dad proved even outsiders can play the legislative game with a bit of help.

So how does a Microsoft test manager become a citizen lobbyist? For Jeff Schwartz, it all started back in 2007 when his son, Jacob, was about 4 months old.

“It was right about December that he started excessively throwing up and vomiting,” Schwartz said.

At first, the doctors thought it was acid reflux; many infants routinely spit up. But then at Jacob’s 6-month checkup, the family got a shock. He was diagnosed with failure to thrive. 

“Cathy called me in tears, and I remember walking into my manager’s office also in tears and just said I couldn’t be there. And I really didn’t come back to work for a month,” said Schwartz.

Soon Jacob was diagnosed with eosinophilia, a rare gastrointestinal disorder. His body was rejecting the breast milk that was supposed to help him grow. The solution was to put Jacob on an expensive, powder-based infant formula called EleCare. His older brother, Sam, once made the mistake of trying it.

“And it tastes like you just ate cake and threw it up. It tastes horrible,” Sam said.

But Jacob willingly took the stuff by bottle. For more than two years, the Schwartz family’s health insurance covered the cost of the formula—roughly $800 a month. But in November of 2010, Premera Blue Cross notified the family that it was stopping coverage.

“It was a devastating letter to have received, because we knew how expensive it was,” said Schwartz.

'We Were Going to Change the Law'

The family appealed, to no avail. The irony was if Jacob received the formula through a surgically-implanted feeding tube, it would have been covered. Schwartz couldn’t understand the logic. But Jacob needed the formula, so the family dipped into savings and started paying out of pocket.

A couple of months later, they caught a break—what Jeff calls “the miracle.” Jacob’s body stopped rejecting regular food; he was cured. The doctors couldn’t explain it. But Schwartz felt he had to “pay back” the gift they’d been given.

“It was on that day that Cathy and I both agreed that we were going to change the law in Washington state so no family had to choose between financial ruin and their kid’s health,” he said.

Schwartz didn’t know the first thing about making laws. So he read a book on the legislative process, then went to Olympia, where he met insiders and started to pick up the lingo.

“I learned about pink sheets and blue sheets, and the code reviser’s office, and how to write bills,” he said.

With some help, Schwartz drafted his bill and lined up sponsors to introduce it: Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, and Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland.

“What was special about it is that he wasn’t just the witness for a particular policy agenda item; he was actually the architect,” Habib said of Schwartz.

Setbacks and Challenges

Now Schwartz had to navigate the legislative gauntlet. His first challenge was the fact that most lawmakers had never heard of eosinophilia, much less could they say the word.

The problem was a minor one. Schwarz faced a much tougher challenge: in Olympia, new mandates for health insurance plans are a touchy subject. Many lawmakers already believe there are too many mandates. Soon, Schwartz’s bill was in trouble. But he didn’t know that.

“There is a lot of what I could consider behind-the-scenes things going on down there,” he said.

Schwartz had gotten this far on passion and determination. But he came to realize there are limits to what a novice citizen lobbyist can accomplish. He’d had several offers of help from a health care lobbyist named Erin Dziedzic.

“I said, ‘Pick my brain. Let me help you. Let me know if you need help.’ And I kept offering that,” Dziedzic said.

But Schwartz was reluctant. He couldn’t pay her , and he didn’t want to feel indebted.

“She offered probably two dozen times to help me. Finally Rep. Habib just sat me down and says, You need to ask Erin for help,’” Schwartz said.

And so he did. Dziedzic signed on, pro bono.

She was there the day the House Health Care Committee turned Schwartz’s proposed mandate for coverage into a study to explore the issue. That’s right, a study. Dziedzic assured Schwartz the results of the study could ultimately bolster his case. Still, Schwartz was understandably disappointed.

“I thanked Erin for her opinion, and I had to think about it,” Schwartz.

Settling for a Compromise, for Now

Ultimately, Schwartz embraced the idea of a study. The compromise bill cleared the legislature with nearly unanimous votes. The study got under way this summer.

Once again Schwartz found himself up against his own insurance company. Premera Blue Cross submitted a letter formally opposing the idea of covering hypo-allergenic feeding formulas when they are taken orally. Premera’s Eric Earling notes these formulas are already available over the counter without a prescription.

“If we’re getting into providing coverage for special dietary needs, that opens up a pretty broad potential spectrum of things that would have to be covered. And then that puts all of customers at risk for higher costs,” Earling said.

Sen. Linda Evans-Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who sits on the Senate Health Care Committee, is also wary.

“There’s just so much uncertainty in health care right now, I would be very cautious before I would add another mandate,” she said.

But Schwartz recently got some good news: in its draft report, the Washington Department of Health recommends that his proposed mandate be adopted. Schwartz plans to return to the Capitol in January to continue his fight.