Beating the drum on healthcare

Beating the drum on healthcare
© Greg Nash

One could say a Southern California pre-med student who became director of a boutique D.C. lobbying shop marches to the beat of her own drum. And that would suit Ilisa Halpern Paul just fine.

“I had a lifelong desire to take up an instrument,” Halpern Paul told The Hill in a recent interview from her downtown office. “My husband two and a half years ago called my bluff. He bought me a drum kit.”

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Now, Halpern Paul can describe herself as a budding rock drummer in addition to her titles of mother of twin boys and lobbying director of the District Policy Group, which is nestled within the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath.

“I’m an enthusiastic beginner,” she says of her drum skills. “It’s great stress relief.”

Starting off as a pre-med and English major at UCLA is about as far away as one can get from Washington lobbyist — she said she didn’t take a single political science course in college — but it was a natural path for Halpern Paul.

Following positions at hospitals and medical labs, Halpern Paul opted for a Washington internship at the suggestion of a friend. At the Child Welfare League of America, she worked on a project focusing on what fledgling talks of healthcare reform could mean for single moms and their children.

After that, “I got Potomac fever,” she said. “I did the internship, and in my young idealism, I thought, ‘Oh, I can change one policy and help thousands or millions of people, and it doesn’t involve blood or organic chemistry!’ ”

She was back in Washington just a few years later, this time as a legislative aide to Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Blumenthal: ‘Credible case' of obstruction of justice can be made against Trump MORE (D-Calif.). After a year on Capitol Hill, it was public policy school at Georgetown University and then stints at several health associations and lobbying shops before landing at her current gig.

The California transplant now makes a home in Silver Spring, Md., where she raises her twins with her husband, Scott Paul, who heads the Alliance for American Manufacturing. That group, founded in 2007, was formed by several large manufacturers and the United Steelworkers union to defend and promote their industry.

Their marriage is a mixed one, but not the partisan type. Rather, Halpern Paul cut her Capitol Hill teeth in the Senate, while her husband worked for several House lawmakers. And that informs her own pet theory on why Washington is so gridlocked these days.

She contends that the influx of House lawmakers into the Senate has helped contribute to the bare-knuckle political fights across Congress. Her husband’s bosses were all too familiar with the “winner-take-all culture” in the House, which she now sees in the Senate.

“There was always partisanship, but there was a level of decorum and collaboration,” she said. “There was always disagreement on policy solutions, but I think there was always agreement on how the institution should function.”

Halpern Paul started out in the healthcare world, advocating for the American Public Health Association and the American Cancer Society. And most of the District Policy Group’s clients are focused on healthcare. It counts among them the American Dental Association, the American Diabetes Association and the Spina Bifida Association.

But Halpern Paul notes her team also does work beyond healthcare, with clients in the property and casualty insurance, agribusiness, and government contracting industries.

The group is relatively small — there are just 14 members on the lobbying team, including former Rep. Phil GingreyPhil GingreyBeating the drum on healthcare Former GOP chairman joins K Street Former Rep. Gingrey lands on K Street MORE (R-Ga.) — but Halpern Paul is quick to paint that as lending flexibility to the work.

She says many of her clients have few political opponents: fighting conditions like spina bifida and blindness are “Mother Theresa-type issues.” But when it comes time to convince policymakers to set aside federal dollars for those matters, it’s time to crunch the numbers.

“We start to think like actuaries,” she said. “The question always is, ‘I hear you, it’s a great issue, but how much is it going to cost?’ ”

So her team’s job is to sell lawmakers on the idea of spending money up front to prevent diseases like diabetes from taking hold, which in turn reduces costs on entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid down the road.

And these days, anything to help break through the flood of information on Capitol Hill is a good thing, she added.

“When I worked on Capitol Hill, we used to get telegrams. We had one fax machine, and we didn’t publicly print the number,” she said. “How do you compete in a world where the volume of email that staffers get is extraordinary? They’re drowning in it.”

She also mentioned a fairly unique arrangement as a way to lend muscle to the group’s lobbying efforts while not driving up costs significantly for clients.

In addition to the 14 full-time members of the District Policy Group, it also employs a six-member advisory board on a part-time basis. Those individuals work like contractors, bringing experience and expertise to particular fields such as local politics, public relations and health economics, and they can be tapped when a client requires something specific.

From Halpern Paul’s perspective, it allows the group to meet clients’ needs while keeping down their costs and complexity.

“It allows us to provide additional services,” she said. “They don’t want to be managing multiple contracts.”

Like most lobbying shops in 2016, much of the group’s work is focused on what comes next, after the presidential election.

But Halpern Paul’s client list does place her in the middle of one of the few potentially productive spots for Congress during this election year: fighting opioid abuse.

Members from both parties are searching for legislation that would help curb the growing abuse of the prescription drugs. The Senate almost unanimously passed a bill back in March, while the White House and House are pushing their own approaches.

Halpern Paul said her team has been working on the issue for years with the Harm Reduction Coalition and is eager to see it finally take the policymaking spotlight.

“Everyone agrees that people should not be dying from opioids,” she said. “Sometimes it takes a crisis to focus the attention of policymakers. … It’s better now than never.”