Saturday, February 28, 2004

Late last year, the flu epidemic that touched all parts of the country hit senior citizens and young children in Hawaii particularly hard. Rather than set up a myriad of different numbers to serve each of the islands, state public health officials worked with Aloha United Way to use its statewide 211 hot line as a central dissemination point for vaccine information. Both groups worked with the media statewide to promote 211 as the source of the most up-to-date information on where and when residents could go to get a flu shot.

A completely different scenario — but with an equally important outcome — unfolded recently in Colorado. Jeff Skolnick, a landlord of a Denver rental property, had an idea that his property could be used to help struggling families have a place to stay until they got back on their feet. After a series of phone calls to local community groups, Jeff could not find an organization to accept his help and realize his vision. But with one call to 211, he was put in touch with an official at the local housing authority who knew exactly what to do so that Jeff could offer his services to the community.

In each case, individuals needing assistance dialed three simple numbers: 211. Fortuitously for them, Hawaii and areas of Colorado happen to be among the 24 states in the country that have made 211 services available for residents. Instead of a complicated maze of community service providers, folks in those states who need information on everything from local after-school and meals-on-wheels programs to public health information and what do to in the wake of a natural disaster can now dial 2-1-1 and receive immediate assistance.

As the United States continues to combat terrorism, 211 will also play a major role in providing grassroots communications services that strengthen community preparedness and homeland security. If another terrorist attack should occur, 211 will be an important tool in helping communities recover. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, 211 services across the country helped thousands of Americans know where to turn for help, how to deal with their grief, and how best to volunteer their own time and energy. The service also relieves pressure on 911 operators, allowing them to deal with emergencies.

The challenge today is to make 211 services available for all Americans, not just the roughly 80 million people who are currently connected. Here in the Washington Metropolitan Area, the District and much of Maryland are close to implementing 211, but much work remains to launch the service in Northern Virginia. And even more work is necessary to integrate the services across the region.

To succeed will take hard work on Capitol Hill. Sens. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and Reps. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, and Anna Eshoo, California Democrat, are leading a bipartisan effort to enact legislation that will lead to 100 percent access for 211. The Calling for 211 Act has the strong support of a grassroots coalition comprised of United Way, partners such as the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, and scores of other civic and business organizations across the country.

This is an election year, of course, so it’s even more important for citizens who want 211 services nationwide to make their voices heard now — before the election season consumes the Hill and, with it, the momentum we established on the 211 bill last year. If you want to help, please contact your member of Congress, your governor and your local United Way. It took nearly four decades for this country to implement nationwide access for 911 services. We can’t afford that kind of procrastination on 211 — not with everything at stake.

Having access to 211 services shouldn’t depend on the happenstance of geography. Somewhere in the United States right now there’s a parent of a young child who needs information about health care services or a volunteer like Jeff Skolnick who wants to give back to his community. When they pick up the telephone and dial 211, there ought to be someone at the other end, ready, willing and more than able to help.


Mr. Gallagher is the CEO and president of United Way of America.

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