Saturday, August 08, 2009

Getting Past All the Noise

So, the two Houses of Congress have gone home for a while without completing a reform of our health care “system.” Well, that’s something of a disappointment, but hardly a surprise.

It’s also an opportunity. After all, this is the time when legislators return home to hear from their constituents, right? So, they meet with individuals and connect with institutions. Some of them also have town hall meetings and other public events.

These public events have also been seen as opportunities by others. They have a clear idea of ways they don’t want the health care “system” to change. They come to these town hall meetings to make their concerns heard. Some of the also come to prevent others’ concerns being heard. Those folks tend to shout more than discuss, to disrupt rather than discuss.

As I said, they have a clear idea of ways they don’t want the health care system to change. They are sadly misinformed in many aspects of their idea. They are misled by some very vocal if unofficial (and hardly unbiased) sources. However, they have, at least for a while, shifted the public discussion from the subject of health care reform to the subject of shouting matches.

Which brings me back to General Convention Resolution C071. I wrote about it before General Convention, and I had the opportunity to speak to it both in its legislative committee and on the floor of the House of Deputies. As I have said a number of times, I think this is perhaps the best resolution calling for universal access to health care that has been passed by General Convention. One reason is the acknowledgement that any health care plan we adopt will have limitations and call for hard choices. The current “system” also has limitations and also calls for hard choices; but those limitations are largely matters of salary and income, and those choices are frequently made for reasons other than patient need and clinical information. We are fooling ourselves if we think otherwise.

But in this time when legislators are home, trying (sometimes trying against a great deal of noise) to hear from their constituents, there is another reason I think this resolution is valuable. That’s because it calls for a response from us. Let me quote the second paragraph:

Resolved, That, The Episcopal Church urge its members to contact elected federal, state and territorial officials encouraging them to:

a) create, with the assistance of experts in related fields, a comprehensive definition of "basic healthcare" to which our nation's citizens have a right,

b) establish a system to provide basic healthcare to all,

c) create an oversight mechanism, separate from the immediate political arena, to audit the delivery of that "basic healthcare,"

d) educate our citizens in the need for limitations on what each person can be expected to receive in the way of medical care under a universal coverage program in order to make the program sustainable financially,

e) educate our citizens in the role of personal responsibility in promoting good health;

Did you catch the important part? Look at the direction: we are to “urge [our] members to contact federal, state, and territorial officials encouraging them to.” Now, the specified content of that contact is important, certainly. Certainly, we want an appropriate common understanding of “basic healthcare,” based on expert opinion and good clinical data; we want it to apply to all citizens (and many of us would like it to apply more broadly); it should be free of political manipulation; and we need education leadership from political leaders and others about what the new system can and can’t provide, and what we can reasonably be expected to provide for ourselves.

But the content isn’t all that useful if we don’t let our political leaders, and especially in this season our members of Congress, know what the Episcopal Church has called for, and that we support the Church in its call. That’s why it’s so important that we contact our officials, and urge those around us to do as well.

So, how do we go about that? After all, the folks that want to stop the discussion are disrupting town hall meetings, causing some legislators to stop having them. There have even been a handful of threats to legislators. So, that doesn’t look like the best avenue.

However, there are others. In 2003 I had the opportunity to participate in “Waging Reconciliation: an Episcopal Response to Healthcare Barriers.” As a part of the meeting, staff members of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations trained us in the basics of lobbying members of Congress. And they should know how: it’s what we in the Episcopal Church have hired them to do. However, they pointed out that contacts from individual constituents can carry more weight than meetings with professional lobbyists; and the more the merrier.

So, how to go about that? Well, some things have changed. The climactic crisis in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” involved bags of letters. Unfortunately, that won’t be as effective any more. Since the attempts to send (real or fake) anthrax spores to congress, letters and packages are screened, and their arrival can be delayed. Instead, the best means are email and phone calls, both to the legislators’ local offices and to offices in Washington.

But, how to get the contact information? Well, in fact most of our phone books have phone numbers of legislators’ local offices. However, there are other places to find all the contact information. I would recommend the web site of the League of Women Voters, an organization with a long history of encouraging voting and educating voters. Moreover, they have a long history of respected as fair and accurate. They used to be the folks who oversaw and organized the debates of Presidential candidates (until, perhaps, the political parties decided they were too fair and accurate). From their web site you can get to their “Elected Officials” page. All you have to do then is put in your zip code, and they’ll give you a list of your elected officials (above the local level), with links to individual pages with their contact information. That includes local and Washington phone numbers, and links to their web pages. So, from there you can write, you can call, or you can email. Alternately, you can use the Web Form on the League of Women Voters site, also linked from the legislator’s page. Those emails will get read, albeit perhaps by a staff member and not the legislator himself or herself. However, they will get read, and you don’t have to try to shout down those who want to dominate the town hall meetings.

Let me say that you can also do much the same thing from the web site of the Office of Government Relations. They will also help you find information about your legislators, and will even send you email bulletins and provide draft emails that you can edit or send as is to multiple legislators. To take advantage of this, you do have to join the Episcopal Public Policy Network. Now, I’m a member and I do think it’s a good network. I do appreciate the bulletins, and while I don’t do so every time, I do frequently send my own emails through their process. However, if you’re not a joiner, the League of Women Voters site is a great resource.

So, here is your opportunity. Be one of the first to actually carry out a resolution of General Convention. It will bring more measured and informed voices to our legislators when we need them most, and without having to fight our ways through the shouts of those who are themselves misled, and may mean to mislead others. It’s not that hard, but it is certainly another means to love neighbor as self, not only in individual encounters but in shaping our civil society.

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