Monday, October 11, 2004
They call it “Jake’s Bill” for the SCSU senior whose need for further medical procedures was the basis for legislation to extend insurance benefits to Minnesota children born with a cleft lip and/or palate. But it was the teamwork of Rep. Lynne Osterman and Jake’s mom Michaela Meyer – both SCSU alumnae – that made House Bill 2554 a reality for Jake and countless others with the third most common congenital defect.
Alumni, employee and student team up to pass critical legislation
The tenacity of Osterman and perseverance of Meyer – “Mac” to her co-workers – combined with Jake’s courage and charisma this past session to bring a little-known problem to the attention of lawmakers. Families like the Meyers, whose first son was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, could get insurance coverage for their children’s corrective surgery until age 18. After that, an obscure 1982 law cut off support for further related procedures.
It wasn’t until the Meyers tried to schedule their son’s final dental work – his first full set of front teeth – that they encountered the devastating legal roadblock that stood between Jake and the end of a lifetime of surgeries and other procedures to rebuild and reshape his mouth, nose and lips.
Jake’s had been an especially difficult case, ranked a ten by his doctors on a severity scale of 1 to 10 when he was born. “He couldn’t breathe right or suck a bottle,” Osterman said of Jake’s condition. “That’s not cosmetic – it’s a disability.”
Jake, who got a chance to talk with lawmakers about a life punctuated by physical challenges and more than 20 surgeries, realizes the profound effect the procedures have had. “I’d be lucky if I were here, alive, without the surgeries, let alone be able to eat and talk,” he said. His perspective helped humanize the cause for busy legislators. So did the powerful series of photos depicting the dramatic 18-year metamorphosis of the form and function of his face, changes brought about by procedures he had during holidays and summer vacations.
The biggest challenge for Osterman and the Meyers was to capture the attention of the 201 Minnesota House and Senate members who are hit with hundreds of issues and proposals each session. “We had to crack the nut and let them know how just a few changes in this law could make all the difference in the world to many families,” Osterman said.
“Not all of the necessary surgeries are over by that age (18) for children like Jake because they’re not through growing,” Osterman said. “I knew in my heart working to pass this legislation was the right thing to do.”
And pass it she did, a rare feat for a first-term legislator. Osterman took her oath as a Republican House member from New Hope in January 2003. “In order to help Jake I only had one window for making this happen.” The bill had been drafted and introduced in the House in the previous session by Rep. Joe Opatz, another SCSU alumnus and an associate vice president for academic affairs at the university.
A speech communication and mass communication major who traces her 17-year quest to become a legislator directly back to her SCSU days, Osterman was undaunted by the complex process of getting the attention of the right legislative leaders and getting a hearing scheduled. What drives her, she said, is her belief in a system of citizen-lawmakers making public policy – good public policy. “I’m not in it for the politics,” she said. “I’m there to do things like this.”
“It was amazing to see her in action,” Meyer said of Osterman, who’s been her friend since the latter worked as a student in the mid-’80s in the Atwood Memorial Center office where Meyer and Opatz worked. “She just wouldn’t back down or take no for an answer.”
Osterman has similar praise for Meyer’s role in the passage of House bill 2554. “She was incredible,” Osterman said of her friend, who graduated in 1978 with a degree in social work. “She gathered information, communicated with other families and amassed a thick folder over three years. Mac is a private person, but her willingness to share her experience helped push the right buttons and get the right attention.”
Now Jake will have the remaining procedures to finish fixing his teeth and reshaping his mouth. “An office staff member, a student, and an alumni legislator pooled their courage and worked to get this passed,” said Osterman. “It’s this family spirit that makes me proud of my alma mater.”
For Jake, who along with other Minnesota children born with a cleft lip and/or palate is the beneficiary of the legislation, the process was an amazing learning experience. “I became involved when it was crucial for me to be there,” he said of his appearance at the legislative hearings and conversations with lawmakers. “But my mom put in an incredible amount of work – that really was the driving force. She had tried to get it passed before Lynne was a representative. But, together, they gave me a good lesson in politics.”