A perfect storm is brewing in the New Mexico legislature, and it might be potent enough to blow away some longstanding barriers to prosthetic access. A newly introduced bill, HB 131, would make New Mexico the 22nd state with a Fair Insurance law and the second to expand the definition of “medical necessity” so insurers have to cover prosthetic devices that are suitable for recreational activities. The latter provision is based on a 2022 Maine law that applies to amputees age 18 or younger; HB 131 would apply to all amputees, regardless of age.
This bill is backed by an impressive grassroots coalition that includes amputees, doctors, prosthetists, physical therapists, and others. More than 100 New Mexicans have signed up to educate legislators, coordinate letter-writing campaigns, drum up media coverage, and provide testimony at committee hearings. The in-state army is reinforced by some big guns at the national level: The American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association is backing HB 131 as the first salvo in its state-by-state “So Kids Can Move” initiative. (The bill is nicknamed “So New Mexicans Can Move.”) The Amputee Coalition, National Association for the Advancement of Orthotics & Prosthetics, and American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists are also on board. And the bill has bipartisan support, with two Democratic and two Republican co-sponsors.
If HB 131 passes, it will rank as perhaps the limb-loss community’s biggest legislative victory in years. Better yet, it could build momentum for a string of subsequent triumphs across the country. “So Kids Can Move” legislation is being teed up in four other states (Colorado, New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Indiana) for the 2023 cycle. A couple others may follow suit this year if the stars align, and groundwork is already being laid elsewhere for 2024.
The two key movers in New Mexico are Kyle Stepp, a veteran advocate and political campaigner, and Nicole Ver Kuilen, AOPA’s public engagement chief and the founder of Forrest Stump. Both combine personal experience of prosthetic-coverage denial with elite wonking and organizing talents. With Stepp playing the local angles from Albuquerque and Ver Kuilen directing the show at the national level, they’re an inside-outside dream team for amputee advocacy.
Those two individuals are among the many reasons we’re so bullish on HB 131. Whatever the outcome, there will be plenty of lessons for disability advocates of every stripe, both within and aligned with the limb-loss community. Amplitude will be paying close attention every step of the way—New Mexico’s session only lasts 60 days, so we’ll know fairly soon if the bill gets over the hump. You should keep your eyes on this process, too, because the same perfect storm might start brewing in your state next. You might even be the one to get it started. . . .
The first hearing on HB 131 is currently scheduled to take place Thursday, January 26, at 1:30 pm Mountain Time before the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee. Here are some things to watch as the bill heads into the statehouse sausage grinder.
1. How well does AOPA’s organizational toolkit perform?
Ver Kuilen and AOPA centralized the organizing effort at a mobile-friendly website, sonewmexicanscanmove.org. The app lists six specific actions anyone can take to help build support for the law, with links to an advocate signup form, outreach guide, fact sheets, flyers, etc. The core resource is a legislative outreach guide that includes step-by-step instructions for finding your representatives in the New Mexico House and Senate; tips for contacting them via phone and e-mail; talking points for how to spotlight the key benefits of HB 131 to your legislators; and instructions for requesting an in-person meeting and urging them to co-sponsor the bill. Another excellent tool is a tracking sheet where any signed-up advocate can find fellow advocates in their part of the state; find out which legislators have and haven’t been contacted; and monitor each lawmaker’s level of support and commitment.
Ver Kuilen and AOPA’s advocacy director, Sam Miller, designed this kit to be portable, scalable, and supremely accessible. You can jump right in whether or not you have any prior advocacy experience, and it’s easy to feel connected, orient your own efforts within a broader context, and get a sense of momentum. The same set of resources can be unpacked in other states and/or modified as necessary to reflect local circumstances. Sample legislative language is also available. If you’re interested in getting the ball rolling in your own state, contact Ver Kuilen or Miller.
2. What qualities make for an effective spokesperson?
Stepp was a natural choice to serve as the face of this campaign in New Mexico. He’s spent years as an ambassador for health-related causes, both in New Mexico and nationally. He has broad and deep connections within the limb-loss and disability communities, enabling him to credibly represent a diverse population. And Stepp has done enough policy homework that he can explain how HB 131 would benefit all New Mexicans in multiple ways (including financially).
He’s joined by Laura Lewis, whose 10-year-old daughter Callaway lost her leg to a rock-climbing injury in 2021. The Lewis family provides an object lesson in why laws of this type are necessary: Although they have solid health coverage, their insurer breezily rejected their claim for a device that would enable the uber-athletic Callaway to remain active in the sports she loves, with the friends she adores (and vice-versa). With support from the Jordan Thomas and High Fives foundations, the Lewises were able to obtain a recreational prosthesis, but it required extra time and effort, with no certainty of success.
3. How much weight do allies from outside the limb-loss community carry?
To avoid being pigeonholed as a narrow special-interest campaign, So New Mexicans Can Move is drawing on allies from outside the limb-loss population. They’ve courted support among physical therapists (working through the American Physical Therapy Association’s statewide chapter); within the adaptive sports community; in academia at the University of New Mexico’s health sciences and medical programs; among parent and K-12 groups; and from military veterans. The group also has tried to enlist prosthetists from major communities throughout the state, giving the coalition as much geographic reach as possible.
The overall intent is to reflect the need for HB 131 from as many different perspectives as possible, giving legislators multiple points of entry. If they’re not persuaded to walk through the front door, maybe a side door will get them into the fold.
4. What qualities should you look for in a legislative sponsor?
The New Mexico coalition lucked out in having an almost-perfect vessel for HB 131, Liz Thomson, representing the same community (Albuquerque) where its two prime spokespeople live. First and foremost, Thomson’s professional expertise as a pediatric physical therapist makes her an expert on HB 131’s substance: She’s seen firsthand how inactivity can impose physical and emotional costs not only on individuals, but also on the communities they inhabit. Thomson sits on the board of Disability Rights of New Mexico, whose advocacy efforts have earned visibility and respect within the state capitol. The Democratic rep also has legislative leadership bona fides, having chaired the important Health and Human Services Committee and vice-chaired the Finance Authority Oversight body. Finally, she has the sort of demeanor that plays well among colleagues, combining a tough hide with a compassionate heart. Thomson can make a hard-nosed case for HB 131 based on governmental costs, workforce readiness, and other dollars-and-cents considerations. She can also argue it from a moral and ethical perspective, with an appeal to equity and fairness.
Co-sponsor Kathleen Cates (also an Albuquerque-area Democrat) is another veteran disability activist who worked closely with legislators before taking office this year. This week, So New Mexicans Can Move scored a big win by attracting two Republican co-sponsors, Josh Hernandez of Rio Rancho and John Block of Almagordo. Their commitment to the bill is a major step, elevating HB 131 above the red-blue streetfights that derail so much worthy legislation.
5. Does media coverage make a difference?
Before the legislature even opened, HB 131 got favorable coverage on Albuquerque TV stations KOB and KRQE. The publicity helped kickstart the legislative outreach effort and gave volunteers an extra talking point. It also spurred a new wave of signups at sonewmexicanscanmove.org. The state’s largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, hasn’t taken the bait so far, but stay tuned.