Thomas M. Howell, PT, MPT, is a full-time instructor in the Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program at our Carrington College campus in Boise, Idaho. He joined Carrington in 2011. Tom is also the part-time Payment Specialist for the Idaho Physical Therapy Association (IPTA).
That role led him to make a major presentation at the annual American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Policy & Payment Forum in Seattle last month. Tom’s work with APTA could have implications not just for PTA graduates in the northwest, but potentially for graduates of many of our programs. He also outlines why it’s a good idea to join the professional association in your field.
Tell us more about the APTA Policy & Payment Forum Tom?
Let me start by bringing you up to speed on APTA, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s the only professional association that represents physical therapists (PTs) and physical therapist assistants (PTAs) in the regulatory and legislative arenas, and beyond. Around 29.6% of all licensed PTs & PTAs are members, and there are chapters in every state.*
APTA holds a number of major conferences throughout the year; the two big ones are open to members and non-members alike, and cover all things physical therapy. But once a year they bring together 200 payment, legislative and state chapter leaders for the Policy & Payment Forum. It’s a leadership meeting with the top people in the field for an intensive update and dialogue on payment and policy issues that are coming down the pike.
What was the subject of the presentation you were invited to make?
It was a group presentation with my counterparts in UT, WA and OR regarding a major insurance issue and how we’re handling it. The issue is that we have four states in the northwest all dealing with one insurer that’s implemented an absolutely terrible pre-authorization system for physical therapy.
We’re trying to negotiate with the insurer to fix the problems on behalf, not only of APTA members, but every therapist who contracts with the insurer. APTA thought this was important enough for us to present to the leadership group, giving them some idea of how we’re helping members through the morass created by this new system. Unfortunately it’s a new, old problem we’re seeing again.
So are there any upcoming changes that PTA graduates need to be aware of?
Basically 2015 and 2016 are going to bring huge changes in how physical therapy services are coded and billed. The association has realized that we’ve been held to standards that don’t actually reflect what we do, and we’re constantly fighting insurers that are using these old standards to cut payment.
We’re never going to get anywhere unless we actually change the payment system itself to better reflect the work we do. Then we’ll have more research and data to support better reimbursement for what we do. The changes are set to hit in the next two years, and they are changes that all PTs and PTAs need to be aware of. That’s why graduates and students need to be in touch with as many points of information as possible.
I guess this is something that graduates in other fields need to be aware of too?
Absolutely. People in the Medical Billing & Coding field, for example, will have to learn a whole new set of codes for physical therapy; it’s basically going to change all the codes we use into something different. I think it will touch just about every program in some way.
Is that why it’s important for graduates, no matter what their field, to be part of an association?
It’s very important. First and foremost, the financial commitment you make by joining a professional association helps pay the people who keep on top of the regulatory and legislative changes in your field, and go to bat on your behalf. Without those people, health care would look a lot different for employees. Without them salaries would probably be a lot lower, regulations would likely be a lot more onerous than they are now – associations are the only ones out there fighting for you.
Beyond that, the number one thing is the networking potential, the ability to cross paths with leaders in your profession. The leading professionals in their field tend to be in associations, and as a member, you’ll have much more access to them in both formal and informal settings. To me the opportunity to learn from the leaders of your profession is the biggest benefit of belonging to an association.
Why have you maintained the paid position with IPTA when you have a full-time job at Carrington?
It’s just so important to me, as an educator, to be able to give my students the most up to date information. Being involved as the IPTA Payment Specialist and as an educator gives me the ability to turnaround and give our students updates on the subject. It really translates well from one job to the other, and that’s why I’ve maintained the role…despite my full-time job at Carrington.
Thanks for all that insight Tom, but let’s break away from that subject to learn more about you.
How long have you worked in the physical therapy field?
I got my master’s degree from Hahnemann University in Philadelphia (now Drexel University) in 1990, so I’m entering my 25th year as a physical therapist. When I started at Carrington in 2011 I was part-time, and owned my own physical therapy practice. I moved into full-time teaching in 2012 and I really enjoy it. I do miss the clinical practice aspect, I don’t think there is a PT educator who doesn’t, but I hope to stay in teaching and build back in some part-time practice here and there.
If you didn’t have to work for a living, what would you be if money was no object?
If money was no object? The first thing I wanted to be growing up was a philanthropist believe it or not. I’ve been in Idaho for 18 years, but I grew up in Philadelphia. We had quite an old money community over there, many of whom were huge philanthropists. The company my dad worked for, one of the owners and his wife, were among those philanthropists, so I grew up hearing about the things they did. I always said to myself if I ever got that wealthy, I’d love to be a philanthropist.
If you could choose to have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would that be?
I’d love to sit down with Abraham Lincoln. He was such an interesting person, and by all accounts, he loved to talk for hours. So if I could choose anybody, he’s the first person who comes to mind.
If you knew you were going to be stranded on a desert island, what book, movie & music would you take?
My favorite movie, and probably the book that made the most impact on me, was “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Both are extremely powerful. In terms of music, it would be Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 – often called the “Symphony of a Thousand”. It’s quite a long, varied piece of music. That would be good if I was stuck on an island – I’d never get bored of it!
If you got an unexpected afternoon off work, what would you do with the time?
I’ve got a five month old Beagle puppy called Lightning, so I’d probably go somewhere with her. Boise has plenty of beautiful outdoor spaces and it’s fun to go out and explore new things with her.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Tom, I’m sure our graduates and students appreciate your insight into the benefit of joining professional associations.
*APTA's Clinical Practice and Research Department - Figures correct as of 12/31/12. APTA membership is NOT a requirement of licensure.