HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

A New Year’s Resolution: Turn Political

New Year’s Day typically draws forth the resolutions: eat less, drink less, sleep more, be nicer, work harder, By Jan. 15, most of us will have lapsed: the “shoulds” invariably fall victim to our lesser selves, and we return to the modus vivandi of 2007.

The hallmark of these resolutions is their self-centeredness. As 2007 closes, we ask: What should we do to improve ourselves? To make us healthier? Happier? Smarter? More successful? The exercise in introspection is determinedly narcissistic. In our self-help mirror we see only ourselves.

How about turning the resolution-lens outward, onto the body politic? In short, how about turning into homo politicus, jumping into the political fray to lobby for laws that improve somebody else’s lot? This is not the same as charity. Charity can enrich the giver, netting psychic rewards (more self-betterment). With enough charity, you morph into a philanthropist, getting your name on buildings (mega-self-aggrandizement).

Political involvement won’t boost your ego, or your pocketbook. It may cost you money and/or friends, as people close to you ponder the motive behind your new cause.

But, for a 2008 resolution, enter the political fray. Every state legislature grapples with bills that pass, or fail, depending upon a combination of inertia and political clout. Embrace one of the health care bills, and call your legislator.

Here are a few.

Conscience clauses give licensed pharmacists who object to contraception a pass: they don’t need to fill those prescriptions. A few states have these laws, often with the proviso that the pharmacist refer the woman to another pharmacist, or pharmacy — adding pharmacy-shopping to a woman’s routine. If your state is considering this law, speak out.

Drunk-driving measures. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities are up. Stringent measures, like roadblock checks, particularly on holiday weekends, work. (The Supreme Court allows them, under a “DUI exception” to the Fourth Amendment.) Civil libertarians, allied with attorneys who specialize in Driving-under-the Influence cases, object to stringency. But on behalf of the people statistically at risk of being maimed or killed, speak up for common-sense caution.

Smoking bans in restaurants and bars. Forget the sultry, glamorous lure of the smoky bars in old movies: That haze hurts bystanders, even non-smoking ones. Obviously, restaurants can ban smoking without a governmental edict; but just as obviously, not all restaurants will jump onto this bandwagon. On behalf of all the cooks, cleaners, wait-staff, bartenders, cashiers and bartenders, speak up.

Soda in middle-school cafeterias. In many suburbs, nutrition-conscious parents have barred the sale of sodas. In urban districts, parents have more pressing concerns. Besides, soda companies pay cash-strapped districts to install the machines. The companies get to encourage young adults to drink soda. The school districts get much-needed revenue. The epidemic of obesity among teenagers (with concomitant increases in type 2 diabetes) has propelled public health officials to urge bans. Join your voice to theirs — and, at the same time, urge more state aid to schools, acknowledging that more aid will translate into higher taxes.

Abstinence-only sex education. The federal government believes in it, and has tied federal aid to it. But most parents know that children need, and deserve, all the facts about contraception. Graduates of “abstinence-only” curricula are more likely to develop sexually transmitted diseases. Call your legislator and speak out, again on behalf of common sense.

Health insurance for children. States cannot insure everybody; but under the States Children’s Health Insurance Program (jointly funded by Uncle Sam and states), states subsidize health insurance. Crucially, states set the limits for income-eligibility. The range goes from 140% to 385% of poverty-levels. Urge your state legislator to up your state’s level — and, again, agree to pay higher taxes.

Support for frail older people. Adult day care, respite services, meals-on-wheels, senior centers — all help frail older people. All cost money. And all serve constituencies that can rarely mobilize enough clout to stop budget-cutting state legislators intent on cutting services. Speak up.

Make 2008 a healthier year for the people you will probably never meet.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2008

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