Senator Tim Johnson (D), senior senator from South Dakota, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996. In December, the senator suffered a ruptured arteriovenous malformation that nearly killed him. Johnson returned to the Senate on Sept. 5 to the applause of his colleagues. During his eight months of treatment, he re-learned how to walk and to improve his aphasia-slowed speech. His recovery has included extensive daily treatment with speech-language pathologists and physical and occupational therapists. He also continues to champion legislation beneficial to ASHA members.
Q: Welcome back! You have joked that once you have fully recovered your speech, you will not abuse it and talk too much as politicians are accused of doing. Being unable to communicate is something most of us cannot imagine. Could you share with us how you coped with it and what you did to begin communicating again?
First, I must say how grateful I am to be back at work for the people of South Dakota. Their support, understanding, and prayers were instrumental in bringing my family and me through this difficult time. I truly believe I have been given a second chance at life and I'm using that second chance to work harder than ever to be the best I can be for my state and for my nation.
I owe a debt of gratitude to a great many doctors, nurses, and therapists who brought me through the darkest moments of my life. I received top-notch care, but I know I have more hours to log with them. They tell me this recovery will continue for the rest of my life.
Losing the ability to speak is such a strange, disconcerting thing. I remember walking back to my office that day thinking, "It's odd that I cannot say any words." It was during this time—when I was conscious but speechless—that I sensed it was a serious health issue.
After I made it through neurosurgery and the life-and-death moments of this health crisis, the real work of recovery began. Being able to communicate verbally is critical for anyone, but it is especially important for politicians. It's a big part of the job. Regaining my speech was a top priority.
I'm fortunate to have an incredibly supportive and loving family. They are so understanding of my singular focus on recovery, particularly my wonderful wife, Barbara. I was blessed to work with such professional, talented speech-language pathologists at George Washington University Hospital and now at National Rehabilitation Hospital. Their confidence in my ability to regain my speech was infectious, and they motivated me to work harder than I thought possible.
I have always believed all Americans should have access to this outstanding health and rehabilitative care. I've been a long-time sponsor of the Medicare Access to Rehabilitation Services Act, a bill to repeal the annual outpatient caps on some services, including speech-language treatment. The cap creates many obstacles for Medicare beneficiaries. In too many cases, the cap decreases patient access to necessary care. Delayed or foregone treatment can result in the need for more costly rehabilitation services, including hospitalizations. Denying Medicare beneficiaries fair or adequate care is a problem that must be addressed.
As I continue my own outpatient speech treatment, I am pleased to support legislation to allow SLPs in private practice to provide their services under Medicare Part B. It seems nothing short of silly that a technical error in drafting the legislation providing payment for SLP services should prevent SLPs in private practice from serving Medicare patients on an outpatient basis. I hope to see both of these important bills addressed by Congress during the current session.
Q: In the last Congress, you introduced legislation that would allow Medicare patients to access audiologists without first obtaining a referral. This bill is a top priority at ASHA. Are you planning on reintroducing the direct access bill this year?
Yes, I plan to reintroduce the direct access bill this year, and in fact, it may be introduced by the time your members read this piece! This legislation will give Medicare beneficiaries the same hearing care options that are available to veterans, members of Congress, and other federal employees by providing the option of direct access to qualified, licensed audiologists.
Approximately 28 million Americans have hearing loss. Many are older Americans, and this statistic is increasing rapidly with the aging of the "baby boomers." Since 80% to 90% of hearing problems are untreatable medically or surgically, it seems only reasonable that Medicare patients be allowed to consult with an audiologist without first seeing another provider.
In the 1990s the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Office of Personnel Management changed their respective health care policies to allow direct access to a qualified audiologist. According to the VA, "The policy has provided and continues to provide high-quality, cost-effective, and successful hearing health care to veterans."
This legislation is consumer-friendly. It will help our elderly and rural citizens who often face difficulty accessing health care services, and I'm proud to sponsor it.
Q: Many ASHA members work in the schools, providing services to children who have communication disorders. We support increases in special education funding and other changes that help students access our services. What are your legislative priorities for education?
Throughout my service in public office, both at the state and federal level, I have worked to make sure our children receive quality early, elementary, and secondary education, and that they have access to affordable and high-quality post-secondary education, be it at a college, university, or vocational training institution. The federal role in elementary and secondary education is limited, with the federal government funding only about 8% of K-12 education nationwide. Despite this limited role, I have been a strong supporter of initiatives to reduce classroom size, fully fund the federal obligation to special education, repair our crumbling schools, and give our teachers the tools they need to help children succeed.
I have many concerns regarding the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, as it places a significant burden on school districts. I joined with colleagues in recommending to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which has jurisdiction over NCLB, the areas within this program that deserve scrutiny and review by Congress. We need to make sure that educators have the resources and flexibility necessary to ensure student progress and achievement. Additionally, I voiced my concerns to the U.S. Department of Education.
I have also been a long-time supporter of fully funding the federal component of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The federal government has never met its promise to fund 40% of the cost of providing a free public education to students with disabilities. It's past time for us to make good on that promise. I have consistently cosponsored the IDEA Full Funding Act (S. 1159) and was pleased that the Fiscal Year 2008 Budget Resolution urged as high a funding level as possible for IDEA programs.
It's time for the federal government to live up to the promises it has made to America's schools and students, and I will continue to do all that I can to protect and improve our public education system.