Tagged: Bayla B. Ostrach

Syndemics and Legislative Outreach

April 25th, 2016

An Experiment in Educating Congress about the Health Effects of War

Society for Medical Anthropology , Ostrach B., Houston A., Singer M.

In the United States, Congress wields enormous power over health care policy and funding. With health care committees and floor votes on budgets controlling national health spending of nearly three trillion dollars annually (Department of Health and Human Services 2015), and the U.S. estimated to spend 50% more on health care per capita than any other nation (Commonwealth Fund 2015), the impact of members of Congress on our health policy is impossible to overstate. In late 2014 and 2015, the first two authors of this column conducted an outreach experiment to gauge the accessibility and approachability of all 535 members of Congress and their staff representatives, in relation to an important public health issue. We contacted the offices of all Senators and Representatives to advise them of a recent article (by the first and third authors) on the long-term health effects of war on civilians in affected areas — namely, interactions between malnutrition and infectious disease that result from sanctions, embargoes, and other intentional tactics. We offered to send a full version of the published article, and then tracked responses. Not one member of Congress requested a copy, and the only direct response we received was a request not to be contacted again (for a full description, see the resulting Anthropology Newscolumn).

What this brief summary belies, however, is how difficult it actually was to attempt to share such public health information with elected officials. To even identify email addresses to which to address our messages proved extremely challenging, taking countless hours of digging through official legislative websites, calls to district and D.C. offices to verify ‘official’ email address formulas that resulted many times only in bounce-back messages, and ultimately, in two of us systematically writing to each member of Congress through online contact forms on their websites (which preclude uploading attachments), over several months. Still, this did not yield actual communication with those who ostensibly represent average Americans, and who we expect to advocate for our health needs.

The challenges we encountered in contacting elected officials for a simple public health information mission have serious and troubling implications for voters who need to contact their members of Congress about more urgent and personal health issues like difficulty getting V.A. benefits, help with processing Social Security disability claims, appealing Medicaid or Medicare coverage denials, or efforts by those who wish to lobby for state block grants for homecare funding — to name just a few reasons voters might wish to contact their elected representatives at the federal level.

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