Connecting Consumers to Health Coverage: It Can Start with an Impromptu Conversation!

By Guest Blogger

This post was written by Jeb E. Murphy, Director of Communications and Data Coordination and Caroline Zimmerman, Director of Health Initiatives at Maine Primary Care Association.

We remember hearing on a conference call recently that one state-based marketplace had been awarded $37 million for their advertising campaign. One of us almost fell out of the chair. It was a moment to imagine what we could do with that kind of marketing budget (maybe hire Oprah to sky write our phone numbers all over the state?) and then let the moment slide and came back to reality.

Maine, in case you don’t know, covers 35,387 square miles but has only 1.3 million people. Much of that area is rural – very, very rural. To drive the point home, our state’s population, 1.3 million, is smaller than that of just the city of Philadelphia, but the state is geographically 250 times the size. It’s not unheard of in Maine for someone to have to drive an hour and a half to buy a pair of shoes (or in some cases take a ferry to the mainland)!

Our certified application counselors (CACs) are located statewide, and have held many of the standard events that are going on around the country: community forums, tabling events, and in-person appointments. These events have had mixed results in our communities.

The thing that is working best for us, is not something we actively planned: talking to people.

Our most successful outreach has been in informal settings:

  • Counselors running into people at grocery stores and handing them a business card;
  • Keeping an appointment book with them when they went to the hair salon;
  • Having a stack of basic contact materials in the trunk so they could hand out information to people when they were getting tires changed or cars serviced.

We have identified some key pieces to making this approach work:

Assess Your Community: Do you have a lot of working families? Where do they spend their time?

For example, one of our health centers decided to do a tabling event at Jimmy’s Market in Bingham, Maine. In more rural areas where there may not be malls or shopping centers, a place like Jimmy’s Market works as a kind of social hub for people to get their morning coffee, newspaper, and something to eat. Our CACs made sure to keep it casual and framed the message around affordable health insurance opposed to politics or the Affordable Care Act.

Understand Where You Fit In: Especially in rural communities, a conversation with your neighborhood mechanic, teacher or pastor can expand your reach significantly.

On-Board Your Board: Having and training diverse messengers is key. Do your board members know who the key enrollment staff are and where to direct questions?

Keep It Short and Sweet: When connecting informally or in passing, have a 30-second elevator speech ready. Also, use language that is friendly and non-political.

Be Prepared: Keep business cards and small flyers handy, in a bag, car, or pocket. Although the meeting are rarely planned, it may be the best time to encourage someone to set up a formal appointment to enroll.

In a lot of ways, this is a very small-town, New England technique; but the idea of being present and accessible in our communities is something we try to do every day at our health centers. So for those of you in communities similar to ours (or even if you’re not) who don’t have Oprah money, take advantage of those impromptu moments and see where the conversation takes you.

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