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Advocacy Explained

Or what is advocacy and why should I care?

Government affects practically every part of your life - the quality of the air you breathe, the safety of your car, the taxes you pay, the quality of your child's education, and more. Did you know that there are state employees who check to be sure that when you buy a pound of potato salad or a gallon of gas, that you are really getting a full pound or a full gallon? Government's role in health care is enormous - from setting staffing levels at hospitals and nursing homes, licensing doctors and nurses, funding community health clinics, monitoring ambulance services, oversight of HMOs, putting fluoride in the water, to spraying for mosquitoes for West Nile Virus.

Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow seeds of discontent among them. That is the reason why agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance toward civilization

-- Oscar Wilde

It's actually a lot easier than anyone knows to influence government policies, especially health policy. A great deal of the decisions about your health care are made at the state level, and three or four calls to a State Senator on an issue is an avalanche. Many bills happen because one motivated informed citizen had an honest, persuasive conversation with a legislator. Happens all the time.

And, believe it or not, legislators WANT to hear from you. They can't read your mind and they much prefer a conversation before a vote to an angry call afterwards (or a vote against them on Election Day). That's not a promise that they will do what you ask, but they will listen. It is their job.

If you think that you don't know enough about the issue to make a call, you couldn't be more wrong. You know enough to be angry. You know your own experience, your family's, friends' and neighbors' experiences. That's plenty. You will never know everything there is to know, especially about something as complicated as health care. "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer to a question, and far better than making one up. Very few people are swayed by statistics alone. Just tell your story - you are the expert on your story.

But lobbying is distasteful, kind of sleazy, right? Call it advocacy if you like, but no, it is exercising your right as a citizen. It is your duty, really. Telling our elected officials how to write our laws and run our government is the heart of democracy.

I remember speaking to a group of middle school students and asking if they know what a lobbyist is. They said they did. I asked if banks have lobbyists? They said yes. Do utilities have lobbyists? Yes. Do big insurance companies have lobbyists? Yes. Do homeless people have lobbyists? No. Do hungry people have lobbyists? No. Do people with chronic health problems have lobbyists? No. Wrong, they all have lobbyists - they just call themselves advocates. Lobbying is just the process.

But there are really smart people working on this right? They don't need to hear from me. Wrong. There are professional lobbyists/advocates for many causes, including health care. But nothing replaces your voice. Consumers have no hidden agenda, no ulterior motive. Policy wonks and other well-meaning folks can sometimes get too removed from the real world you live in. Your voice is critical to the process.

I know, you're busy. Who isn't? But it doesn't have to take a lot of time or effort. There are many different roles that can fit your time, your skills, your resources and your comfort level. Even 5 minutes makes a difference -- If you only have 5 minutes.

It is also cheap. All legislators have local home phone numbers listed in the blue pages of your phone book, and toll-free lines in Hartford. You can write a letter for the price of a stamp. You can meet a legislator for a cup of coffee in the district or in their office in Hartford. You don't have to make out a big campaign check to be heard.

So, have I hit all the excuses? Give it a try.

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