Ascension Health grooms small business leaders as health reform advocates

December 1, 2011

Just as grassroots advocacy was important in the campaign to win passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it is proving equally crucial to educating the public about the merits of the law.

At over 2,400 pages, the law can overwhelm average citizens. St. Louis-based Ascension Health found that small business owners on its local hospital boards were confused about it, and many viewed it with suspicion. Under the leadership of its chief advocacy officer, Susan Nestor Levy, the health system brainstormed with some of those business owners to develop a targeted communications and advocacy campaign with a goal of informing members of this influential group about how the law will impact their businesses and their employees. Then, it encouraged board members to spread the word in their communities.

The program materials include easy to digest brochures, PowerPoints and webinars specifically targeted to the interests and perspectives of small business owners. Ascension Health is making its materials available for use by others in the Catholic health ministry. Mary Ella Payne, system vice president for legislative leadership, said ministry members can use their own brand marks on the materials. She added that Ascension Health would welcome the opportunity to partner with others in spreading the word about the benefits of health reform.

In a presentation at CHA's Catholic Legislative Advocacy Conference, Payne said Ascension Health interviewed by phone a group of small business owners who serve on its hospital boards. Some common themes emerged in this information gathering phase. Business owners found the law hard to understand; and since health insurance exchanges won't be up and running until 2014, they did not feel compelled to figure out in the near term how these insurance clearinghouses would impact their health insurance purchasing processes.

As employers, they were concerned about taxes and health care premiums, but few knew about the targeted tax incentives available to small businesses that provide employee health insurance.

Ascension Health's findings about small business owners' attitudes and aptitudes for the law mirrored those of the Small Business Majority, a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of small business owners. Survey results released by the latter organization in January revealed that 60 percent to 70 percent of its respondents weren't familiar with either the insurance exchanges or the tax credits that have been available since 2010.

Ascension Health found that the tax credits are not being taken up at the hoped-for rate because many business owners don't know they are available.

Ascension Health piloted its communications initiative in small, invitation-only forums in Kalamazoo, Mich., and in Nashville, Tenn. Small business owners and business leaders, many of whom are on its hospital boards, got a primer on how the private insurance market functions and how provisions in the law will make health care insurance more transparent and affordable for small business. "We wanted to provide a venue for them to learn and ask us questions," Payne said.

"Our board members came in pretty nervous, pretty skeptical. But once we started to lay out what is actually in the law, we began to change some minds, and it was only through information that was useful to them," Payne said.

The pilot groups from Tennessee and Michigan agreed to come to Washington to tell their elected representatives what they like about health reform. On Nov. 2 the group went to the White House where they met with Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, President Barack Obama's deputy chief of staff for policy. She wanted to learn more about Ascension Health's community-based strategy for informing small business owners about the law and its tax credits.

Obama stopped by to thank the group for their efforts. "This is how important it is to the White House, that he took time out of his day," Payne said. "It's hard for the White House to make the case" that health reform benefits small businesses. "They really need people like us in the community talking to community leaders and opinion makers and small business owners."

To obtain the Ascension Health materials, contact Shari Shane, a senior director of communications.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.