In planning for our 10th Anniversary celebration, I’ve spent some time reflecting on the Obesity Action Coalition’s early days. It is truly remarkable to see how the OAC has grown. The story of our beginning is definitely worth retelling as it set the foundation for what the OAC is today.
We were created shortly after a legislator stood up at a meeting about obesity and called for a group representing those who actually had the disease. He shared that he often heard from public health officials and healthcare providers about obesity, but never once had an individual affected by the disease of obesity walk into his office and asked for help. He said with every other disease, people with the condition advocate on their own behalf, and his message was very simple –an organization representing the interests of those affected by obesity was needed.
To drive home his point, he pushed his call for a new organization even further. He said he could pass a law today making a certain obesity treatment illegal (he used bariatric surgery as his example) and not a single person who needed the treatment would march on his front steps.
His message was heard loud and clear by OAC’s founding Board members, Robin Blackstone, MD, Christopher Still, DO and Georgeann Mallory, RD. The three of them committed to give those with obesity a voice and after some initial planning and securing of start-up funding, the OAC was born. I was hired to lead the professional staff and less than a month later, added our first two staff members, Kristy Kuna and James Zervios. In fact, the OAC’s first office (albeit for a very short time – just over a month) was my son’s playroom in my home just outside of Tampa, Fla.
While building the infrastructure, finding an office and expanding our board to include both a diverse base of individuals with obesity plus the healthcare providers who care for them, the timing of our start put us in the spotlight nearly instantly with our unique perspective of representing those with obesity. Medicare had recently started a review of whether or not to cover bariatric surgery under a national coverage decision and this issue dominated our early days. OAC helped secure numerous comments from those who actually experienced bariatric surgery and those who needed it. Before we even celebrated our first anniversary, Medicare announced national coverage for bariatric surgery – a major victory as it was the first time Medicare was going to cover a treatment for obesity.
Our early success with Medicare showed the power of the voice of those affected by obesity. Was it the sole factor in the decision? Of course not, but it added an important perspective showing that there were real people behind the data and statistics used to support coverage. It’s a perspective that we continue to offer today to local, state and federal policy makers, whether regulatory agencies or elected officials.
As our early advocacy efforts ramped up, so did our education efforts. It is my personal belief that in order to be an effective advocate, you need to be well educated, so these efforts often go hand in hand. From the first issue of our magazine (which was really a newsletter back then), to our first brochures, it was amazing to see the excitement around OAC’s educational materials. They were unique as they were presented from the perspective of those who had experienced obesity to help others with the disease, just as our materials are today.
Demand rose quickly and James, Kristy and I, in addition to creating the materials, actually personally filled orders every Friday – counting out brochures and either mailing and/or shipping via UPS. In fact, if you receive a bulk order of materials today, look at the UPS shipping label and you’ll see they still list the shipper as me (although others took over this responsibility years ago).
How did we support our initial efforts? it was primarily through membership. I’m proud to say I was the first member of the OAC. Securing members was a bit more difficult in the early days, because we were asking people to join on the basis of the potential of the organization, as we didn’t have the history or wide variety of membership benefits that we offer today.
When I think about where we are today with more than 50,000 members, I’m not sure I could have imagined that amount in our early days. One of the things I’m most proud of is that many of our early members are still involved today – many serving as active volunteers and in leadership roles.
OAC was created to give a voice to those affected by obesity, and as we look from our earliest days to the present, I’m so very proud of how far we have come. This isn’t to say there isn’t still more work to be done, but the strong foundation of the organization created 10 years ago has set us up for future success.