Spitfire Strategies

How to Move an Issue Forward in a Polarized Congress

Lessons from the Children’s Health Insurance Program

Recently, Congress and President Obama took a big step towards preserving the health and well-being of children across the nation by renewing funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

CHIP has a long history of success and bipartisan support. It helps children in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but don’t have access to affordable coverage. Together, CHIP and Medicaid have successfully provided high-quality, cost-effective health care for millions of children—making the number of kids without health insurance the lowest in history.

In April, the president signed a bill supported by an overwhelming majority of senators and representatives. With so many people from both parties voting on the package, many believed that this was an easy victory for advocates.

But passage of CHIP was neither easy nor inevitable. Dozens of national and state-based organizations worked around-the-clock. Through a variety of communications mediums and by establishing unified messaging, these organizations helped legislators understand that CHIP deserved their support.

So what communications lessons can we learn from advocates?

Speak with a unified voice. Each state approaches CHIP in a different way and has a different political landscape in which advocates operate. This could have led to groups adopting different messaging. But CHIP advocates understood that CHIP renewal required that they all embrace a positive narrative focused on the bipartisan history of CHIP and its effectiveness in helping kids stay healthy. By focusing on messages that worked across states, advocates spoke with a unified voice.

Tell stories and share images. One of the hardest tasks for advocates is finding and crafting powerful stories, but success requires that audiences (e.g., legislators) understand the human impact of programs that an organization supports. CHIP advocates proved especially effective because they took the time to develop those stories and to link them with powerful images.

Embrace social media. Children’s advocates launched a social media campaign focused on surrounding important legislators with a unified message on CHIP. Through Twitter chats, tweeting at legislators and developing hashtags like #ExtendCHIP, advocates made sure their voices were heard.

Adapt frequently and often. Advocates were greeted almost daily with a new CHIP development and not all were positive. Illinois, for example, was dealt a blow when Governor Pat Quinn, a strong CHIP advocate, lost reelection. Advocates excelled in quickly adapting strategies by leveraging local partnerships, identifying new decision makers to target and adopting new communications mediums to meet changing conditions.

The fight is not over. While advocates pressed for funding through 2019, the final bill only provides for two years of funding. But these lessons can and will be useful as advocates continue to make the case for this vital program for kids.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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