On October 27th we hosted our Fall Gathering in Bethel and it was different than our normal gatherings. We used this opportunity to build up the ability of our members to speak up about what matters to them in regards to the laws and policies that impact their health and wellness. The first part of the event was a "Public Health Advocacy 101" training. The second part, a listening session with the Maine Equal Justice Partners, is covered in another post.
Becca is the Executive Director for the Maine Public Health Association, as well as a researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Southern Maine. She’s also the evaluation partner for OCWC, helping us to understand the impact that our efforts are having and how we can improve our work together for better results. She provided a 45-minute training about how to connect with our elected representatives, the best ways to reach them, and how to keep track of the legislation that we care about.
Becca started by naming some of the challenges that we face in regards to public health in Maine:
-Our infrastructure, the former Healthy Maine Partnerships (like River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition and Healthy Oxford Hills), have faced funding challenges for years, and the most recent restructuring of preventive health service dollars in Maine caused some of those agencies to shrink dramatically or disappear altogether. Constant uncertainty about whether public health workers would have a job caused many of them to switch careers, leading to disruptions in programming.
-We’ve faced workforce shortages that have threatened public health. For instance, the number of public health nurses was reduced from 59 to 9 positions statewide. These nurses provide essential supports to Mainers by visiting pregnant women and young families and preparing them to raise healthy children, as well as homebound populations, including the elderly and those with an infectious disease (like TB). They also provide a critical line of defense during public health crises (like infectious disease outbreaks).
-Important issues shaping public health right now include:
Tobacco—Maine's youth smoking rate is higher than the national average, and funds to reduce the prevalence of smoking, as well as prevent youth from starting, continue to dwindle
Clean water—At least 100,00 homes and 30 schools in the state lack access to clean drinking water
Opiates—the 2017 overdose death rate is on track to match 2016’s record high
Broadband internet—many areas lack high-speed internet which impacts youth academic performance, as well as adults' access to employment and heatlhcare
Infant/maternal mortality—Maine is the only state with a rise in the infant mortality rate
Dr. Boulos mentioned a report by the Maine Center for Economic Policy which explains that some of the public health challenges we face are related to the $1.9 billion in federal funds which the State has turned away since 2011. That report is available here: https://www.mecep.org/lost-federal-funds-lost-opportunities-for-maine/
Next we learned our way around a couple of very useful websites.
-The Maine Legislature’s website (http://legislature.maine.gov/) lets you find bills by searching for them by keyword or bill number, provides access to video streams of both the House and Senate, and allows you to listen to committees as they discuss legislation. You can also sign up to receive email updates from Legislative Committees.
-The State of Maine’s website allows voters to look up their legislators: http://www.maine.gov/portal/government/edemocracy/voter_lookup.php.
It also shows you where you go to vote, who your local clerk and registrar are (so you can contact them with questions), and even includes information about upcoming ballot initiatives and a list of candidates for state ballot.
Dr. Boulos explained how easy it is to reach out to legislators to both raise concerns on issues that we are passionate about as well as to thank them for their action on legislation. This can be done through email or phone calls. Encouraging a legislator to become involved in an issue can take a few different approaches. One is to stress that there is an opportunity for the legislator to get out in front of an important issue, and that this will be advantageous for them. You can rally a group of people to support the legislator, particularly if this is a contentious issue. Another is to stress that failure to act will have consequences (perhaps a missed opportunity to be a part of an important change, or perhaps the loss of your vote).
Becca shared an advocacy handout from Maine Conservation Voters that outlines how to pick an issue, set a goal, and choose a strategy and tactics.
Although the Maine Legislature was in a special session that prevented legislators from attending, we were fortunate to have representatives from the offices of our three federal delegates: Carlene Tremblay from Senator Collins’ office, Ben Tucker from Senator King’s office, and Tim Gallant from Representative Poliquin’s office. Each of the reps offered valuable input about engaging with legislators. Perhaps most important was a reminder that our voices matter, and that in Maine we have a rare opportunity to connect and get the attention of our federal legislators—something that many people in larger states never get the chance to do. We were told that sending “form letter” emails has limited impact, unless we include at least a couple of sentences that makes the issue personal and allows our lawmakers to understand why this issue means what it does to local people. We also learned that when one of the offices of our federal delegates gets a handful of calls about the same issue, they pay attention.
Becca's presentation slides can be found here. Thanks for a great training, Dr. Boulos!