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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Determined Father Learns The Ropes In Olympia, Gets A Bill Passed

Austin Jenkins. Citizen lobbyist Jeff Schwartz with his wife Cathy and sons Jacob (on couch) and Sam at their home in Kirkland, Washington.

There are nearly 900 registered lobbyists in Washington state. These are the paid professionals who try to influence the outcome of the legislative process. But this year, a determined dad proved even outsiders can play the legislative game – with a bit of help.

So how does a Microsoft test manager become a citizen lobbyist? For Jeff Schwartz it all started back in 2007 when his son Jacob was about four months old.

“It was right about December that he started excessively throwing up and vomiting,” Schwartz recalls.

At first the doctors thought it was acid reflux – a lot of infants routinely spit up. But then at Jacob’s six month check-up, the family got a shock. He was diagnosed with Failure to Thrive.

“Cathy called me in tears and I remember walking into my manager’s office also in tears and just said I couldn’t be there," says Schwartz. "And I really didn’t come back to work for a month.”

Soon Jacob was diagnosed with eosinophilia – a rare gastrointestinal disorder. His body was rejecting the breast milk that was supposed to help him grow. The solution was to put Jacob on an expensive, powder-based infant formula called EleCare.

His older brother Sam once made the mistake of trying it. He says, “It tastes like you just ate cake and threw it up. It tastes horrible.”

But his baby brother Jacob willingly took the stuff by bottle. For more than two years, the Schwartz’s health insurance covered the cost of the formula – roughly $800 a month. But then in November of 2010, Premera Blue Cross notified the family it was was stopping coverage.

“It was a devastating letter to have received because we knew how expensive it was,” says Schwartz.

The family appealed to no avail. The irony was if Jacob received the formula through a surgically implanted feeding tube it would have been covered. Schwartz couldn’t understand the logic. But Jacob needed the formula, so the family dipped into savings and started paying out of pocket.

A couple of months later, they caught a break – or what Jeff Schwartz calls the miracle. Jacob’s body stopped rejecting regular food. He was cured. The doctors couldn’t explain it.

But Schwartz felt he had to “pay back” the gift they’d been given.

“It was on that day that Cathy and I both agreed that we were going to change the law in Washington state so no family had to choose between financial ruin and their kid’s health.”

Schwartz didn’t know the first thing about making laws. So he read a book on the legislative process. And showed up in Olympia where he met insiders and started to pick up the lingo.

“I learned about pink sheets and blue sheets and the code reviser’s office and how to write bills,” he says.

With some help, Schwartz drafted his bill and lined up sponsors to introduce it. Democrats David Frockt in the Senate and in the House, freshman Cyrus Habib.

“What was special about it is that he wasn’t just the witness for a particular policy agenda item," Habib says. "He was actually the architect.”

Now Jeff Schwartz had to navigate the legislative gauntlet. His first challenge was most lawmakers had never heard of of eosinophilia, much less could they say the word.

This was a minor problem though. The much tougher one: In Olympia new mandates for health insurance plans are a touchy subject. Many lawmakers already believe there are too many mandates.

Soon Schwartz’s bill was in trouble. But he didn’t know that.

“There is a lot of what I could consider behind the scenes things going on down there,” he says.

Schwartz had gotten this far on passion and determination. But he came to realize there are limits to what a novice citizen lobbyist can accomplish. He’d had several offers of help from a health care lobbyist named Erin Dziedzic.

“I said pick my brain,: Dziedzic says. "Let me help you, let me know if you need help. And I kept offering that.”

But Schwartz was reluctant. He couldn’t pay her and he didn’t want to feel indebted.

“She offered probably two dozen times to help me. Finally Representative Habib just sat me down and says you need to ask Erin for help.”

And so he did. Dziedzic signed on pro-bono. She was there the day the House Health Care Committee turned Schwartz’s proposed mandate for coverage into a study to explore the issue.

Dziedzic assured Schwartz the results of the study could ultimately bolster his case. Still Schwartz was understandably disappointed.

“I thanked Erin for her opinion and I had to think about.”

Ultimately Schwartz embraced the idea of a study. The compromise bill cleared the legislature with nearly unanimous votes. The study got underway this summer.

Once again Schwartz found himself up against his own insurance company. Premera Blue Cross submitted a letter formally opposing the idea of covering hypo-allergenic feeding formulas when they are taken orally.

Premera’s Eric Earling notes these formulas are already available over-the-counter without a prescription. He says, “If we’re getting into providing coverage for special dietary needs that opens up a pretty broad potential spectrum of things that would have to be covered and then that puts all of customers at risk for higher costs.”

Republican State Senator Linda Evans-Parlette is also wary. She sits on the Senate Health Care Committee.

“There’s just so much uncertainty in healthcare right now," she says. "I would be very cautious before I would add another mandate.”

But recently Jeff Schwartz got some good news: in its draft report, the Washington Department of Health recommends that his proposed mandate be adopted. Schwartz plans to return to the Capitol in January to continue his fight.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."