So You Want to Start a Coalition? Tips From One That’s Tripled Its Membership Since May

By Sophie Stern

Cover Arizona is more than a website with health reform-related news and links to Marketplace and AHCCCS (Medicaid) resources— it’s a community-based effort several years in the making. This Coalition, just recently coined as Cover Arizona, has evolved over time, largely with the same individuals and organizations at the core, to increase access to health insurance for a variety of populations.

Currently, Cover Arizona is focused on mobilizing community organizations to conduct outreach surrounding the new health coverage options made available by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Starting with 200 groups earlier this year, the Coalition has grown to over 600 member organizations, which includes groups such as Maricopa Integrated Health System, Valley Interfaith Project, the City of Phoenix, Greater Phoenix Urban League, and Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers.  

Recently, the Best Practices Institute had the opportunity to travel to Phoenix, Arizona where we met Kim Van Pelt, Director of Arizona Health Futures at St. Luke’s Health Initiative and convener of the Cover Arizona Coalition. During our meeting with Kim we heard firsthand about the Coalition, and how community-led initiatives can lead to coordinated health reform efforts on the ground.

Our conversation with Kim, highlighted in a Q&A below, sheds light on useful tools organizations and individuals can use to start a coalition. Or, for those who are currently engaged in coalition work, promising practices to think about during this open enrollment period and beyond.

Sophie Stern (SS): In your experience, what are the key promising practices that lead to successful coalition work?

Kim Van Pelt (KVP):

  • A neutral convener. The “convener” cannot have a profit motive, or favor any set of groups over another. St. Luke’s is able to play this role because we are a funder—there is no profit motive for us. We bring people together with the sole motivation of getting folks coverage, and also have a long history of providing data and analysis that informs important health policy issues—not favoring particular political agendas.
  • Engaging key community stakeholders. For example, while anyone can join Cover Arizona, we have specifically targeted recruitment to bring people that reach different constituencies to the table. It is also important to ask trusted sources for good volunteers. Often, the best coalition members are not necessarily the leaders of an organization. Instead, they are the folks that know how to get things done. It is also important to have partnerships at the local, state, and national levels, if and when appropriate. The partnerships Cover Arizona has with AHCCCS, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as well as U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have been instrumental to our effort.
  • In-person meetings. A lot of organizations and individuals are interested in helping people get coverage, but feel overwhelmed by the ACA. They simply don’t know where to begin. By meeting with these organizations and beginning the conversation surrounding the topics they are interested in (such as covering people with behavioral health issues), you can best engage them in overall outreach efforts that also fits into the work they are already doing.
  • Understanding and using different individual and organizational strengths. Different organizations are key to reaching different populations. Understanding what kinds of assets and needs different groups bring to the table is critical. For instance, some organizations have vast networks to get information out, and others may be trusted spokespeople for hard-to-reach communities.
  • Transparency—trust is key. Cover Arizona tries to be transparent by sharing information on the Cover Arizona website, making as much as possible open to the public.
  • Monitoring and evaluating success. Cover Arizona defines success by increasing coverage and appropriate access to care. We care about how many people we see enrolled in coverage in Arizona, and whether or not we have laid the appropriate ground work for outreach and enrollment assistance efforts over time. Since July 1, 2013, the Cover Arizona web site has received 9,209 visits and 29,051 page views. The highest week of traffic was during the first week of open enrollment with 1,758 visits.

SS: How do you keep Coalition members engaged?

KVP: Cover Arizona has monthly, regional Coalition calls by phone, monthly, steering committee meetings in person (with about 30 people attending), and we hold hundreds of informational meetings every month with organizations, tailoring the presentations to meet the interests and needs of individual organizations.

SS: Is there such a thing as too many meetings?

KVP: Yes. Once or twice a month is more than enough. Folks have busy schedules and lot of work to do. All of our meetings have agendas and timelines. A good facilitator is key to staying on track. We hold wine and cheese discussions after the in-person meetings (at the end of the day) that allows folks to be more social and chat about business, allowing our meetings themselves to stay on track.

SS: Cover Arizona has grown considerably over a short period of time. How have you managed this growth?

KVP: We are more than 600 organizations now. We have grown from 200 organizations in May. We are handling the growth mostly by making our calls more informative and less conversational (answering questions through email and posting on the web) and by discussing issues at the steering committee level or subgroup level.

SS: Sustainability can be a challenge, especially when organizations are volunteering their time and resources. What is the key here?

KVP: The key to sustainability is finding a few people who care about the coalition’s success (acting as its backbone to support it), making sure that everyone feels like their role in the coalition is respected (no members are valued more than others), and by providing some value to the members themselves—whether it be key information, connections, etc. If you cannot add value, people will not come to meetings or participate. The quickest way to judge whether you are succeeding as a coalition or not is to look at attendance. If folks are not coming, you are not adding value to the work they do.

SS: With sustainability comes accountability. How does the Coalition hold organizations accountable?

KVP: Having monthly meetings keeps us moving forward. In addition, a few key Coalition members have scheduled calls once week to make sure key action items are on track and problem solving occurs. Since none of us has any authority over another, the best way to keep each other accountable is to have folks report to one another routinely about what they are doing. If you have a bunch of highly competent professionals at the table, they will make sure that they have good things to report.

SS: Is there anything else you would like to share with other communities interested in starting or reviving a coalition?

KVP: The key to a great coalition is humility. It is not about any one person or organization. It is about the goal. Disappear into leadership.


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