Catharine Hartnett is a communications consultant based in Portland, Maine. Clients include philanthropies, nonprofits and companies. She has provided communications support to MeHAF for several years, having the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of Maine's health care systems.
"Get rid of Obamacare!" "I like that my daughter can stay on my health plan." "I don't want the government telling me what I need for health care!" "Thank Goodness I can't be denied coverage anymore because of a preexisting condition." "The Affordable Care Act will cost too much!" "I feel more secure now that the 'doughnut hole' in my drug coverage is gone."
Figuring out how to tell people what the tangible, you-may-experience-this-tomorrow benefits of the Affordable Care Act are is a budding case study in communications challenges that may eventually rank up there with the crisis management of the 1982 Tylenol scare in communications course favorites.
As someone who advises even the smallest organizations about the importance of communications strategy, I have wondered why the new reform package didn't come with clear operating instructions. Why not direct agencies to tell their constituents, clearly and concisely, how they would benefit? Rather than endure the howling and resistance that persisted in the information vacuum, why not take the guess work out of the equation immediately?
Luckily, Maine didn't wait. Eleven advocacy organizations, funded by MeHAF, together developed a comprehensive communications strategy to tell their respective stakeholders exactly how they would benefit from reform. Representing MeHAF's priority populations of uninsured Maine people and those without access to quality health care, these organizations assembled a brochure directing people to a toll-free information helpline, and plan to go into their communities-the way their constituents would expect them to arrive - armed with facts and information. The organizations reached out to the seniors, young adults, new Americans and low income families in their communities and shared information with them about benefits available through the new health care law. The grantees have been at it for two years now, and the working group has become a brain trust of reform expertise in Maine when it comes to how people are actually being helped.
It wasn't easy and it wasn't smooth. At an August 2010 meeting, an inordinate amount of time was spent debating a potential brochure design metaphor of a highway and on ramps. (Here is the road to better care and here's how you can get on it.) Comments ranged from thinking it might be interpreted as an MDOT construction advisory to a promotion for better internet connection.
However, at a recent meeting, it was evident that they have hit their stride and are even getting ahead of challenges: What parts of the brochure need to be translated into Somali, Ethiopian and Congolese? How to direct young adults who could legally stay on their parents' policies when their parents are uninsured? How to tell seniors that just because a procedure is covered by Medicare doesn't mean it is medically necessary? Western Maine Community Action talks to Consumers for Affordable Health Care. The Eastern Area Agency on Aging talks to the Maine Primary Care Association. The Somali Culture and Development Association talks to Maine Equal Justice Partners. They talk informally and share ideas and challenges through a list serve. Now the whole group plans fact sheets together, sharing resources and expertise with ease. And, through ongoing communications with a small "c" people in Maine know what they need to know.
A recent Maine Today article attributed Mainer's affinity for the new reform law (47% say it's good compared to 37% of all Americans) to a history of support for President Obama. My own opinion is that we like the new law because we understand it. The no nonsense approach of these eleven organizations has ensured that Maine people understand exactly what health care reform means for them and their families. Make sure that is in the case study.
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