Melissa Herman’s official title is Program Manager of the FirstHealth Bariatric Center, but a more accurate one might be “Diabetes Advocacy Superhero,” particularly after being selected for the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) inaugural Diabetes Advocacy Leadership Program.
Herman is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator who counsels FirstHeath Bariatric Center patients seeking to lose weight and restore active, healthy lives.
Many of her patients have diabetes and she is on a mission to combat it, particularly by elevating awareness of the disease to the level of public policy priority. In addition to completing extensive community work, she has presented at numerous national conferences and served on the Diabetes Advisory Council at the state level.
“I have always had a passion for diabetes, and it is certainly a pressing issue for not only our nation and state but the individuals living in our community,” Herman said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1,077,000 North Carolinians, or 12.9 percent of the adult population, have diabetes. This is significantly higher than the national epidemic rate of 9.4 percent.
Not only can the disease carry serious complications including heart disease, stroke, amputation, end-stage kidney disease, blindness and even death, but the financial costs are extraordinarily high. The ADA reports that total direct medical expenses for diagnosed diabetes in North Carolina were estimated at $7.7 billion in 2017 with an additional $2.9 billion spent on indirect costs from lost productivity due to the disease.
In early 2019, the ADA announced the creation of the Diabetes Advocacy Leadership Program (ALP).
“The objective of this nearly year-long program is to build advocacy knowledge and skills for a new tier of Diabetes Advocacy Leaders. ADA Advocacy efforts include supporting government funding for diabetes research and programs, ensuring access to health care, preventing type 2 diabetes, fighting discrimination and bending the curve on the diabetes epidemic,” said Amanda Pears Kelly, vice president of Grassroots & Internal Advocacy for the ADA. “The goal of our advocacy work is to help individuals and families impacted by diabetes thrive.”
Herman applied to the program with the goal of being a voice for individuals with diabetes and their families. “My goals are to improve equity for people living with diabetes, improve access to quality education and promote affordable insulin,” she said. “I want to help ensure that resources to help combat the disease are a national priority.”
She was chosen as 1 of 10 participants from a nationwide pool. Her colleagues are from varied backgrounds, including the only year-round physician on Ocracoke Island, an endocrinologist, a pharmacy student, individuals who live with type 1 diabetes personally or have a child with the disease, and more.
“The ADA is working to develop a new tier of advocacy leaders within our broad network of more than 500,000 Diabetes Advocates,” said Pears Kelly. “With her experience, passion and commitment to supporting people with diabetes through advocacy, Melissa is a natural fit. We are thrilled to have such a dedicated professional as Melissa join our efforts.”
The yearlong program includes extensive training from ADA senior leadership and others as well as hands-on experience in all areas of diabetes advocacy.
Herman will complete an individual advocacy project focused on either increasing grassroot-level engagement or strengthening support for existing ADA priorities. She has many ideas for her project and her challenge is to prioritize them.
“For starters, I plan to meet with our members of Congress while they are home in August,” says Herman. “Several important initiatives are in flux now, including the federal Special Diabetes Program which funds type 1 diabetes research and evidence-based type 2 programs and could end in September if not renewed.”
Another of her concerns is the cost of insulin, a life-sustaining medication for 7.4 million Americans, including all individuals with type 1 diabetes, which tripled in price between 2002 and 2013. Colorado recently approved a limit for monthly insulin copays, and Herman is working to have similar legislation implemented in North Carolina.
The ALP culminates in spring 2020 with the ADA’s annual Call to Congress, the organization’s premier advocacy campaign for empowering those affected by diabetes to tell their stories and drive positive change and support among congressional champions and key influencers.
Herman will leave the program as a recognized national advocacy leader with an enhanced skillset to care for patients in the Sandhills and across the country.
“Everyone at FirstHealth is incredibly proud of Melissa’s dedication to patient care and her selection for this influential program,” said Scarlett Blue, Herman’s supervisor and administrator of surgical services at FirstHealth of the Carolinas. “She is relentless in her pursuit for excellence and is a true health care superhero.”