I want to help the health reform efforts, but I don't remotely understand the issues. What should I do?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Sept. 16 2009 6:58 AM

Paralyzed by Health Care Reform

I want to act, but I don't remotely understand the issues. What should I do?

What's the best way to get active on health care? Click image to expand.
What's the best way to get active on health care?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

I know there's a raging debate around health care in Congress and the media, but I don't know how to engage in a meaningful way. My friends are all updating their Facebook status in support of the president's plan, but to be honest, I don't even really know what the plan is or whether I support it. And I can't imagine that updating my Facebook status will really make a difference. What should I do?

—Dylan

Sandy:

If you aren't interested in taking a drastic step such as, say, calling the president a liar in front of all your colleagues, I'd suggest you start by doing some research into the issue.

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Health care is so complex that even millions of dollars a day in TV ads and countless newspaper and magazine articles haven't enabled most Americans to understand what the disagreements are and how we should feel about them. Death panels, uninsured babies, and euthanizing granny don't leave a lot of room for substantive discussion.

And the process of getting legislation passed isn't simple, either. Several House committees have approved health reform bills, but the Senate is moving more slowly. The health, education, labor, and pensions committee passed a health reform bill, so now they're just waiting on the finance committee to pass its version. If everything goes through, the bills will be reconciled "in conference" and, ultimately, signed into law by the president.

But how can you understand the legislation without a law degree and hours spent poring over the text? I find the Kaiser Family Foundation's section on health care reform to be informative and impartial. Kaiser has six short briefs in its Explaining Health Care Reform series, ranging from "How Might a Reform Be Financed?" to "What is an Employer 'Pay or Play' Requirement?" Even more helpful, Kaiser has a tool that allows you to do a side-by-side comparison of different reform proposals.

Once you've done your research, use your three key tools—money, time, and voice—to join the debate. But I beg of you, Dylan, don't follow the lead of the engaged citizens you've see in the news for whom participation means drowning out the discussion entirely. This debate is too important to join in a way that is anything but constructive.

Your voice is probably your strongest asset. Write or call your senator and representative. Write your local publication a letter to the editor outlining your views. (Regardless of your views, you can use this tool on the Organizing for America site to look up information about local newspapers.) Or join a group of like-minded advocates, such as the more than 11,000 doctors who delivered a petition outlining the points they think are critical to health care reform to Senate offices last Tuesday. As for Facebook: Nearly 1 million people updated their statuses to reflect their support of health care reform last Thursday. So while you're right that it may not be the most efficient avenue to change, you have to agree that the overwhelming number of your friends engaged in the issue made you think that maybe you should be, too. And that's the purpose of advocacy.

With your time, volunteer to educate others about reform, attend town-hall meetings or other public forums to discuss the issue, and help organize grassroots efforts to get out the "vote." And if you find an organization or politician you think is doing good work, consider supporting them with a donation.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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