Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Healthy Wisconsin?

Palmeri posted this months edition of his Media Rants column up last Thursday laying blame for the tepid popularity of the Healthy Wisconsin plan and, oddly enough, his sole commenter thus far disagrees, citing the ulterior motives of the legislators pushing the plan for it's stagnation. I can't speak to the motivations of specific law makers, but I do know that Healthy Wisconsin, at least in it's current incarnation, was dead on arrival.

There are two loosely connected reasons for HW's imminent demise. The first has been the lousy sales job. Democrats are clearly not united behind this effort. I don't know how much dissent there is, but it's likely enough to scuttle the plan without the assistance of Republicans. Rolling out a huge program like Healthy Wisconsin can only be done if the full force of a party is behind it and there seems to be little evidence of that right now.

Even when the Democratic caucus is united and finally able to fan out all over the state to pitch the program to their constituents, they and their allies will need to put together an "independent" (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) grassroots special interest group to promote the plan full-time. Call it Citizens for a Healthy Wisconsin, or something lame like that. (If you really wanted to get creative call it Citizens for a Healthy and Energetic Wisconsin's Youth, or CHEWY.)

You want a model from which to crib from? Fair Wisconsin.

Hire someone to run the show full-time and set them to task aggressively promoting HW throughout the state. Get regional coordinators to divide up the state and find volunteers to help out. Coordinate townhall meetings and Q & A's with sympathetic legislators to help answer questions in person. Put pressure on legislators that are against the plan. Get volunteers to fund-raise, write constant letters to newspapers, go door-to-door. Most importantly, CHEWY (oh, hell, I'll run with it) should seek out real Wisconsinites who have been affected by a lack of health care and do everything humanly possible to get those stories heard in the media. So far that hasn't happened.

The local Wisconsin media is not going to conduct a dialog on health care policy. You simply can't do that in less than 600 words or in less than two minutes of air time. What you can do is find a kid with cancer, put him or her in front of a camera and basically ask the viewer if a Just society will continue to deny this kid chemotherapy because his parents own a small business and can't afford their own health insurance plan. The public needs faces, it needs symbols, it needs issues that are humanized. Throwing statistics, pie charts, and actuarial tables at voters will do nothing.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it's essentially a blueprint for running a campaign for public office. That's almost how this should be done. There will have to be direct mail pieces made, TV & radio spots produced, press releases written, rallies organized -- the whole nine yards. When these things start to happen, then the media will take notice. Give the media a reason to cover something and they will do it. People get sick -- that's not a story. Give the press a reason to care why Mr. Smith is sick and then you have a story.

The major problem with an undertaking of this nature is money. It will be an expensive effort. I don't think it would run the kind of numbers that a campaign for a major state-wide office would cost, but expect a price tag in the mid seven digits. This will not be an easy task, primarily for the second reason I think Healthy Wisconsin was doomed from the get-go: Wisconsin is not healthy.

Wisconsin has notoriously high obesity and alcohol consumption rates. When you live on a diet of bratwurst and venison and the only exercise you get is doing 16 oz. curls at the bar, you're not going to be healthy. Folks in Massachusetts, the only other state to have the kind of coverage HW aims for, are by comparison obsessive about their health.

Having an active interest in one's own health makes it easier for one to understand why health care is so important. Part of this undertaking will be to fundamentally change the state's attitude about how each person treats him or her self and the stubbornness of the populace will make this difficult. I just don't know how receptive Wisconsin will be to a statewide effort to in essence get in shape at the moment.

Not that this should be a deterrent. It's certainly possible to rally the kind of support necessary to pass something like Healthy Wisconsin, but it will take a concerted and determined effort not unlike the one outlined above, and that's just not what I'm seeing from state Democrats.

One thing that isn't related to, but may serve as a good indicator for, whether or not Wisconsin is ready for such a comprehensive initiative is a smoking ban. I have a hard time believing that voters will be willing to accept a universal health care plan before they jump on board with a smoking ban. It would be great to push both through in one fell swoop, but I don't think it will happen. A smoking ban, once passed, would be a sign that Wisconsin is serious about doing something about its collective health.

No comments: