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“I’ve Made a Law!”

“I’ve made a law!” Those are the words I waited five years to hear from my son.

“I’ve made a law!” Those are the words every mom would love to hear from her 8-year-old. Those are the words I waited almost five years for and words I wasn’t sure I would actually hear until it rang true on May 4th, 2023, when my son sat with Governor Inslee of Washington to sign HB 1222 into law.

Our journey started when my son was diagnosed with hearing loss at age 3 and we found out about the lack of insurance coverage for hearing aids in Washington state. I work as a physician assistant and found this unacceptable. I started asking questions and making calls because I just couldn’t believe that insurance companies did not have to cover the cost of hearing aids.

I was told that legislation would need to be created to mandate insurance companies to provide coverage. Legislation was completely out of my knowledge base. I started contacting deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) organizations hoping someone was already working on this and I discovered that efforts for hearing coverage for adults and children in the past had failed. I was convinced that if I used the angle of kids, I might be successful. After all, glasses are required to be covered for kids under all insurance plans and who could say no to the kids!

I was invited by WA Hands and Voices to attend a disability reception in Olympia in January 2018. This is where our bill really began. I was completely uncomfortable and knew nothing about the process, but figured I had nothing to lose. I spoke to a friend who is familiar with creating laws and learned that I needed to contact my district legislators and find a sponsoring senator or representative who would agree to create a bill. I began telling my story to anyone who would listen and I got my first bite from Rep. Christine Kilduff at the disability reception. She introduced the first version of the bill in January 2018, and then the hard work really began.

Telling Our Story and Making Connections

For the next five years, I spent most nights staying up late, crafting emails to make connections. Knowing this work was not in my knowledge base, I would do the best I could and not worry about the formalities. I would put myself out there and just keep reaching.

Over the years, I composed endless emails and made countless calls telling our story to anyone who would listen. I involved my child’s otolaryngologist and audiologist from Seattle Children’s Hospital. It was very important that the language in the bill is excellent and that it would provide a useful benefit. I told our story to my children’s school, audiology organizations, and literally people on the street. Every interaction and every waking moment throughout the years was an opportunity to tell our story, make a connection and get support.

I would walk around the Capitol grounds during legislative sessions and strike up conversations with legislators. I reached out to the media. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of families interested in helping and of all the advocates I was growing. I used social media to create a page called Let Washington Kids Hear to try and get the word out.

I stepped outside my comfort zone and even walked into the Office of the Insurance Commissioner (OIC) in Olympia to tell them our story. It seemed very well received and I soon developed a relationship with Jane Beyer, the Senior Health Policy Advisor at the OIC. Fortunately, Medicaid already provided coverage along with some self-funded plans. The following year (2020) when the pandemic hit, we did not get a public hearing and progress slowed.

Our Persistence Pays Off!

In 2021 we again were not granted the long-awaited public hearing in the House Health and Wellness Committee, but its chair agreed to designate money from the state to conduct an actuarial study to figure out the financial implications of this legislation to the state and insurance premium holders. There were also growing concerns about discrimination if we only covered the kids, so the study examined the costs of covering adults too.

After six months, the Wakely study was released, which demonstrated reasonable costs for adults and children to be covered. This was fantastic news and we were able to rewrite the bill to include adults. Throughout this process, I stayed connected with my district legislators, including Rep. Tina Orwall, who helped guide the process and then became the prime bill sponsor for the 2023 legislative session. We would have regular virtual meetings with several advocates, including parents, physicians, audiologists, WA Hands and Voices, Listen and Talk, the Hearing Loss Association of America and AG Bell in addition to Rep. Orwall and Beyer.

During the 2022 legislative session, we were finally granted the long-awaited public hearing in the House Health and Wellness Committee! Unfortunately, it was nearly the end of the legislative session and there was no time to move the bill through, but at least our stories were heard.

The House Health and Wellness Chair turned over for the January 2023 session and that is when we really gained traction. Our master plan was in two parts. The first was to have HB 1222 mandate large group plans (companies with over 50 employees) require coverage and the second was for SB 5338 to allow the OIC to update the Essential Health Benefits (EHB) for Washington State with hearing coverage. This EHB update would cover the small group plans (less than 50 employees) and individual plans (like Molina and Apple Health). In short, the legislation would mandate hearing aid insurance coverage of $6,000 for two hearing devices every three years.

Supporters smile at a legislative bill signing
Washington State Governor Inslee signing a hearing aid insurance mandate into law.

The legislation wouldn’t be a cost to the state but would increase the holder’s insurance premiums by an estimated $0.37 a month to add this coverage for people of all ages. Now we had to convince legislators that this was worth doing. We did this by using the power of the children. Through these many connections, we had an excellent group of children, many of whom were willing to come to Olympia to testify in person at the hearings. They really stole the legislator’s hearts. Picture this, a formal room with rosy-cheeked adorable kids all dressed up but with mud on their shoes from running around outside in between bill hearings. They really lit up the room and opened the doors for passage. The bill was passed out of the House Appropriations Committee on the same night it was heard, which was only the second time in 11 years this has happened.

HB 1222 was carefully crafted with the help of medical professionals, myself and other advocates alongside Rep. Orwall and Beyer. I am also connected with the network “Let America Hear”, which is a group of other moms in the United States who have spearheaded this same work in their own states. As you can see, passing this bill was a tremendous amount of work, but in the end, it was well worth the effort. So, when the day finally came for my son to join Governor Inslee to sign this bill into law, my heart was full.

The key to success was an effective sponsoring legislator, Rep. Orwall, and a leader like me alongside an advocate group. I persevered no matter how difficult the task was or how long it took and knew all along the efforts were worthwhile even if it was unsuccessful. The journey was as important as the destination. My son and I learned how to work hard, speak up and fight for what we believe in. This is the greatest lesson of all.

Thank you for your interest and I hope this inspires you to fight for what you believe in.

Jill Bujnevicie works as an Emergency Medicine Physician Assistant in Washington. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she has lived in the greater Seattle area with her husband and two children for over a decade. Her 8-year-old son, Hugo, who has a hearing loss, is thriving in second grade. She and her family enjoy adventuring in the Pacific Northwest great outdoors as much as possible.

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