Her regular visits to the Massachusetts State House have been replaced in recent weeks by texts, phone calls, and Zoom meetings with political and healthcare leaders, but Dorchester’s Kate Audette is still advocating for patients and staff as Dana-Farber’s director of government affairs.
Audette’s primary focus is supporting Dana-Farber’s Legislative Action Network and strengthening the Institute’s relationships with elected officials and policymakers, while advocating for sustainable policy change in areas central to cancer treatment, research, and prevention.
Now, with normal legislative business and pending bills largely put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she is redirecting her efforts to help Dana-Farber and the Commonwealth best respond to and learn from this challenge.
A trained social worker, Audette joined Dana-Farber last fall after more than six years as director of state government relations at Boston Children’s Hospital. There, she had championed issues such as expanding access to telemedicine services, health equity, and the unique needs of children with medical complexities. These causes remain on her agenda, along with ensuring that patients of all ages receive the best treatment options – and best viable ancillary support – for their specific needs.
“My role is advancing government affairs work led by impactful constituencies: patients and families, providers, and people involved in the healthcare delivery system,” says Audette. “It is a privilege when you can sit with a family and bear witness to their lived experience and then say, ‘You know what? You’re not alone. You’re not the only one with this challenge in the healthcare system, and we can work together to try and fix it.’”
In bringing the needs of patient and their families to Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill, one of Audette’s most passionate causes has been telemedicine. Connecting with healthcare providers by remotely using technology such as phone or video can protect the safety of immunocompromised patients, such as those with cancer or recovering from stem cell transplants. Lack of legislation and consistent means of access, Audette explains, has previously resulted in insurance companies refusing coverage for telemedicine (also known as telehealth) for many Dana-Farber patients.
Now that the Coronavirus pandemic has taken hold locally, however, leaders, including Gov. Charlie Baker, are stressing the value of telemedicine both in treating COVID-19 patients and in preventing the virus from spreading. Baker signed an executive order on March 15 dramatically expanding access to telemedicine, requiring insurers to cover such visits and making it easier for patients to virtually connect with their providers.
“State legislators and decisionmakers now know the power of telemedicine, in part because we’ve been talking to them for more than a decade about it,” says Audette. “When they thought about their emergency response, they had this information and felt comfortable moving forward with it, which I think is a testament to our advocacy. Once we are past this crisis, hopefully telemedicine will be one of the ‘new normals’ that we come away with as a covered, HIPAA-compliant benefit for other areas like cancer care.”
When Audette’s own son Kaiden was eight months old, in 2004, he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, an aggressive, cancerous brain tumor. He spent most of the remainder of his life as an inpatient at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Audette, who was facing additional challenges as a former foster child trying to make ends meet as a college student, seldom left her son’s bedside before he died at age 16 months.
“Years later, when I began doing advocacy work at Children’s and Dana-Farber, nurses would see me in the hallways and recognize me as Kaiden’s mom,” Audette says. “It was so inspiring that there were health care professionals who cared for so many patients and families, yet still remembered us. Things felt like they had come full circle.”
Anne Levine, MBA, MEd, who leads Dana-Farber’s government affairs efforts as vice president of External Affairs, says that Audette’s deep knowledge on policy and legislative issues, family history, and networking skills enable her to better recognize and value the needs of her constituents.
“Kate has expertise and passion that makes her uniquely suited for this role,” says Levine. “She has excellent contacts both at the State House and in the Longwood Medical Area, and has a demonstrated ability to build impactful, patient, family, and provider-focused advocacy campaigns. By growing staff support for the Legislative Action Network and partnering closely with our adult and pediatric Patient and Family Advisory Councils, Kate will prove a tremendous asset to Dana-Farber’s lifesaving mission.”
And when unexpected challenges to that mission arise, as is now the case, Audette – who is no stranger to life’s challenges – remains determined to keep doing her part.
“Ultimately, I want to help patients, families, providers, and anyone across the Institute that identifies barriers to access and wants to fix them,” she says. “My goal is listening to other people and their experiences, and then taking that information and applying it to make the system work better.”