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Leading the Fight: Families USA Annual Conference

Families USAI had the opportunity to attend Families USA’s annual conference “Health Action 2009” in Washington, D.C. on Friday, January 30th, 2009.

Families USA bills itself as an organization “dedicated to the achievement of high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans.”

Headquartered in D.C., the organization maintains an active network of grassroots affiliates that conduct advocacy campaigns at the state and national levels. Families USA also produces its own series of reports and keeps consumers up-to-date on the health policy debates through large scale media initiatives.

The best thing about the conference was not having the opportunity to hear Paul Begala, E.J. Dionne, David Blumenthal, and Atul Gawande speak, although all of them offered extremely insightful, entertaining and timely remarks on our healthcare system and the various reform proposals being considered.

(As a side note, most of them seem to favor piecemeal reform, rather than a top-down overhaul. They argue that implementing large changes too quickly will disrupt the provision of health care services and might even cost us human lives.)

Nor was the best part of the conference attending the numerous workshops offered on a wide variety of topics, including insurance, immigration law, Medicaid/Medicare, SCHIP, minority health, online organizing and state initiatives. These workshops were informative- I hope to share much of the information that I gathered in future blog posts right here on What If– and they were led by experts in the field, including congressional staffers.

The best part, in fact, was meeting representatives from healthcare advocacy groups that are working around the country to make our system fairer. Many of these individuals are working at the state level, particularly on improving access to care. Families USA chose to recognize three such individuals with “Consumer Health Advocate of the Year” awards.

It’s worth taking a moment to describe the creative work being done by these three people.

First up was Dr. Robert Kraig, Program Director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a statewide group who works to make Wisconsin a “better place to live and work.” Dr. Kraig has published a number of articles on various aspects of the health care crisis, and his book Woodrow Wilson and the Lost World of the Oratorical Statesman topped a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) list of the top five books to read in preparation for the Obama administration.

In June of 2008, Dr. Kraig and Citizen Action launched a campaign called “got healthcare?” to make health care a top policy issue during the presidential election season.

  • The organization sponsored four town hall meetings on health care and organized to collect 32,000 petitions to get a health care advisory referendum placed on the November ballot, which passed in a landslide.
  • The group also released several research reports on the state of health care in Wisconsin, which led to media coverage of the issue and public discussion.
  • The campaign generated 450 media stories on health care reform and undertook a radio and direct mail campaign to keep voters informed.
  • The secret weapon: a “got healthcare?” cow mascot was created, and Citizen Action arranged for the cow to be present every time a presidential candidate visited the state.

Up next was Florida resident Josephine Mercado, who founded the Hispanic Health Initiatives, Inc (HHI) in 2000. The organization reaches out to uninsured and underinsured members of the Hispanic community in central Florida.

Ms. Mercado, her staff, and their corps of roughly 75 active volunteers provide two main types of services:

  • Referrals to low-cost services; and
  • Prevention education on chronic diseases.

Ms. Mercado aims to create culturally-sensitive, language-specific health education resources that are then taken directly to community members. For example, paid health educators and volunteers conduct breast self-examination demonstrations, breast health bingo, prostate cancer screenings and workshops on diabetes, obesity and cancer. HHI also holds two “Hispanic Health Lifestyle Fairs” annually to increase awareness about chronic diseases.

Lastly, we heard about the Reverend Henry Blaze, who is the Pastor of Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Justice Center, which is a nonprofit public interest law and advocacy firm that gives priority to policy issues and cases that affect poor and marginalized communities.

He was recognized for his work as a vocal advocate and organizer against Tennessee Governor Phil Bredsen’s dismantling of TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program. He co-chaired the TennCare Saves Lives Coalition in 2005 and 2006 that advocated against the proposed cuts.

The advocacy efforts of these three individuals (and the countless others with whom I spoke during the conference) are remarkable for two reasons.

First, these folks are accomplishing big change with very few resources. We often talk about the huge influence that well-funded pharmaceutical and insurance lobbyists have when it comes to health care legislation and the distribution of health care dollars, but it is not as often that we hear about the successes of under funded consumer advocates.

Second, all three of the award winners use creative rhetoric and media strategies to bring attention to their campaigns and to educate their constituencies. As we’ve seen during the last two presidential elections, the ability to successfully appeal to diverse groups through various forms of media is critical.

Bravo to these three reformers for their savvy and dedication.

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