Champions of Change Blog

  • Changing Lives of Working Americans in Communities of Color

    Joshua Gray

    Joshua Gray is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    Last fall, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) reached out to friends, neighbors, and loved ones with the great news that the Affordable Care Act levels the playing field and gives them a fair shot at a longer, healthier life.

    Thanks to the work of SEIU members and community partners, millions of working women and men – particularly in communities of color – are now waking up to a world in which there is no need to put off a doctor visit or skip medications. There is far less worry about mounting medical bills or missing work and subsequent paychecks.

    Every day, I am honored to work with SEIU nurses, doctors, home care workers, and other union members to promote access to quality, affordable healthcare in African American, Hispanic, and Latino communities. I also build community partnerships that help close health equity gaps. But it is really the faces and lives of those who are touched that motivate me. I’ll never forget Ms. Thomas, a mother I met last February at an enrollment event in Philadelphia. I was able to help identify resources and walk her through the steps so that she could get her daughter covered. I didn’t think I’d ever hear from her again until she called to thank me two months later. Her daughter finally had healthcare.

    This type of outreach is especially critical in reaching Latinos and African Americans, who are much more likely to be uninsured than the rest of the population and suffer worse healthcare outcomes as a result. That is simply unacceptable, and we must continue our fight to move our country’s healthcare forward. We won’t stop until we deliver quality, affordable healthcare to all working people, giving families a path out of poverty.


    Joshua Gray is the Special Assistant to the Chair of the SEIU Healthcare Division.

  • Bringing the Benefits of Health Insurance to Low- and Moderate-Income Americans

    Bill Forbes

    Bill Forbes is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    All public service volunteer activities have the potential to be highly rewarding. It’s particularly gratifying, though, when one’s volunteer work addresses the underlying cause of an important societal need. That’s how I see my work with Get Covered America. The mission of GCA is to encourage uninsured Americans and legal residents to get enrolled in a health insurance plan through the Healthcare Marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act.

    The primary objective of the ACA is to bring the benefits of health insurance to a larger fraction of Americans, in particular to those living in poverty or near poverty. Without health insurance, families already struggling to achieve economic security could be overwhelmed by health care costs at any time.

    Get Covered America focuses its efforts on outreach and education. In partnership with a wide spectrum of educational, religious, and service organizations, we reach out to the uninsured with information about their options for high-quality, affordable health insurance under the Healthcare Marketplace.

    Among the uninsured, lack of knowledge about the provisions of the ACA is a major barrier to getting enrolled. A study commissioned by Get Covered America conducted shortly after the first Open Enrollment period found that only 26% of those who did not enroll were aware that the law gives financial help in the form of tax subsidies to low- and moderate-income Americans. The study found that only 28% of those who did not enroll were aware that free in-person enrollment assistance was available and that less than half who did not enroll knew that health plans cannot deny people coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

    We provide that information and more to individuals we meet at public events, at schools, at houses of worship, and through our many partner organizations, including health institutions and social service groups. In addition, we refer these individuals to the various local agencies that provide in-person enrollment assistance. One of the hallmarks of our program is follow-up, by phone and email, with the people we meet who express a need and desire to get enrolled. Working with GCA, I have found that follow-up beyond the initial contact very significantly increases the likelihood that an individual will complete the enrollment process.

    It is a source of tremendous satisfaction for me and the many other GCA volunteers and staff to know that the lives of many of the people we help will be improved in concrete and long-lasting ways.

    Bill Forbes is a volunteer with the Get Covered America campaign.

  • Dedicating His Life So Others Could Live Their Own

    Andrew Cray

    Andrew Cray is being honored posthumously as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    Andrew Cray dedicated his life to making sure others could live their own.  

    Every day, Andrew fought tirelessly for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, Americans to be treated with dignity and fairness. His work touched so many lives in so many ways, from working to secure protections for LGBT homeless youth to collaborating with the Obama Administration to implement the Supreme Court’s marriage equality rulings. At the center of his work, however, was his belief that the foundation of equality rests on the ability of all Americans to access comprehensive, affordable, and inclusive health care.  

    Andrew was just 28 years old when cancer tragically took his life this past August, but his passion for equity in and access to health insurance existed long before his diagnosis. As a transgender man, Andrew knew the challenges and the needs of the LGBT community personally and was all too familiar with the common occurrence of transgender people being denied insurance simply because of their gender identity, as well as with the startling statistics. According to a recent Center for American Progress report, one in three LGBT people with incomes at or below 4 times the federal poverty line lacked insurance, and 72% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people reported experiencing discrimination when attempting to find coverage through their employer for a same-sex partner. The eternal optimist that he was, Andrew believed that, with the right reforms and the improvements, those numbers could change.

    Like many LGBT Americans, Andrew saw the Affordable Care Act as a vehicle for change and an opportunity to open up life-saving medical care to a community too often systemically and financially excluded. After passage, he worked with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services to end discrimination against LGBT people by health insurance companies. He collaborated with the federal government and state governments to ensure accurate data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity, which will serve as the foundation of future LGBT health advocacy. Andrew also worked with various partners to ensure that many of the new insurance options were inclusive of same-sex couples and transgender Americans.

    As important as these reforms are, he also knew that, for the law to work, people needed to be educated and enrolled, which is why he, along with colleagues at the Center for American Progress, Sellers Dorsey, and the Federal Agencies Project, co-founded Out2Enroll. Over the last year, Out2Enroll has helped educate and connect countless LGBT Americans with their new coverage options under the Affordable Care Act. 

    All of this work took on a new meaning for Andrew when, in September 2013, he was diagnosed with cancer. Throughout his treatment, he continued his legal advocacy and outreach work but also decided to utilize his personal story to convince young Americans, including young LGBT Americans, to enroll in health insurance. In an op-ed in The Advocate, Andrew wrote, “Our LGBT community is resilient and strong, and particularly for those of us who are young and have our entire lives in front of us, it may feel like we are invincible. I’ve learned the hard way that I’m not.”

    Several months later, this past July, Andrew found out that his cancer had returned and that it was terminal. As his partner, and soon to be wife, I sat with Andrew as we discussed what he wanted to do with the time he had left. He said he wanted to continue his life’s work: fighting to ensure that all Americans, including LGBT Americans, can access life-saving medical care.

    One month later, Andrew passed away far too quickly and far too young, but the benefits of his work live on. As he wrote in The Advocate last March, “Cancer has taken a lot from me physically and emotionally. But it hasn’t taken away my voice…I want to make sure other young LGBT people understand why getting covered is so important. I hope that my community will listen when I say — please, take care of yourselves. Be out, be healthy, and get covered."

    Sarah McBride is the Special Assistant for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress and authored this blog post on behalf of Andrew Cray. Andrew Cray was a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. He was her husband and colleague.

  • At the Intersection: Community, Policy, and Engagement

    Niiobli Armah IV

    Niiobli Armah IV is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act, the NAACP has remained committed to ensuring that communities of color understand the benefits provided by the ACA and the importance of its implementation. The NAACP began by forging a number of partnerships with organizations across the nation to guarantee that communities of color remain a priority demographic for the implementation of the ACA. The NAACP Board of Directors passed a resolution identifying health coverage as a critical civil rights issue and mandating that all 38 state conferences in the organization facilitate workshops around the ACA at their fall 2013 conventions. We have focused on making sure communities of color are aware of their options under the ACA and have opportunities to participate in Open Enrollment activities.

    I have found that ACA outreach is most successful when we focus not on health care but rather on upward mobility and quality of life. At its essence, health care affords millions of Americans the opportunity to go to work daily and provide for their families. Health insurance is a safety net that is often taken for granted. In designing our outreach strategy, I knew that we had to build a narrative that resonates with our communities.

    The issue of health disparities naturally rose to the surface. People of color are diagnosed later than others, and they often die early from preventable diseases. Getting other organizations to understand the uniqueness of engaging communities of color has been a high priority for our outreach efforts. Organizations have struggled with what they define as “hard to reach communities,” but I believe there is no such thing as a community impossible to reach. After participating in many meetings with organizations thinking through community engagement, I have come to understand that the traditional approach needs adjusting. Singular interventions and initiatives focused on one particular issue are less successful than those that are more comprehensive and view an issue in its totality. Neither advocacy groups nor the communities they serve have the option of choosing what issues will take priority. For example, the same communities experiencing poor health outcomes are simultaneously dealing with issues of unemployment, education, violence, and mental health. 

    The second Open Enrollment Period begins on November 15, and we charge ourselves and other community organizations to find innovative ways to bring the important message of health care to the constituents they serve.  No longer can we operate within silos by choosing what issue areas communities should prioritize. Instead, we must find the intersection of multiple issues so that we can address community problems holistically.  To appropriately address health equity, more work must be done at the interaction of multiple issues.

    Niiobli Armah IV is the Director of Health Programs for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

  • The Impact of Positive Change

    Vanessa Abernathy

    Vanessa Abernathy is being honored as an Affordable Care Act Champion of Change.

    Each generation has contributed to the social, political, and economic change that has made America great. I have been privileged to witness one of the greatest periods of change in American history, as well as to make a contribution to it by supporting the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. I am honored to be nominated as a White House Champion of Change and would like to thank Get Covered America for the opportunity to serve my country.

    The objective of the Affordable Care Act is to provide everyone with access to affordable health insurance. We are achieving this goal through positive and peaceful change. ACA was enacted after a nationwide discussion about what health insurance should look like. There were heated town meetings in communities across the nation. We witnessed negotiations and opinions from the medical industry, unions, and elected officials. We saw our democracy in action with the passage of ACA and are still experiencing peaceful and positive change as challenges to the law are argued in the judicial system. 

    The national movement to ensure affordable health insurance for all Americans has been a life-changing experience for me. I have joined thousands of volunteers throughout the country going door-to-door and church-to-church, asking my neighbors if they know about ACA and if they need health insurance. That personal contact reminded me of so many historic campaigns that required volunteers to spread the word and call Americans to action. It has been a humbling experience for me to join thousands of volunteers all over the country to help our fellow Americans understand how the ACA Marketplace works, that financial assistance is available, and that there are people certified by the federal government to help them navigate the process.

    I moved to Fairmont, North Carolina, in May 2013 and started my volunteer work with Get Covered America the following August. I spoke to churches and media outlets. I distributed flyers and talked to customers in small businesses, including nail salons, restaurants, professional service firms, and beauty shops. I felt a particular sense of pride and fulfillment when I visited Spanish-speaking businesses and offered flyers written in Spanish about ACA and local enrollment events because I knew that we were doing our best to reach out to all Americans.

    I’ve worked in six counties in southeast North Carolina. I’ve traveled hundreds of miles spreading the word about the Affordable Care Act and the importance of health insurance and helping to organize enrollment events. But I haven’t been alone in this movement. Pastors and community leaders have opened doors to me. Friends and family have continually reaffirmed my work. And Navigators and certified application counselors have been partners in supporting insurance enrollment under ACA. 

    Our work is not over. The second open enrollment period for insurance under the Affordable Care Act begins on November 15, 2014. Mahatma Gandhi is paraphrased as saying, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” We all can impact the future of our country through volunteering and advocating for positive change.

    Vanessa Abernathy works on Affordable Care Act outreach in North Carolina.

  • Hands On @ Hyatt – A Public-Private Partnership That Works

    John Ficca

    John Ficca is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As the Director of Hands On Education, it is an honor to accept this recognition on behalf of our program and our partners—Hyatt Hotels and State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies funded by the U.S. Department of Education. I owe the program’s success to a unique public-private partnership and to our focus on the individuals that we serve.

    Hands On @ Hyatt is a state-funded training program that prepares individuals with disabilities for employment in the hospitality industry. Our students are paid employees of Hyatt and learn from some of the best chefs and managers in the industry.  Graduates leave with increased confidence, employability skills, a certificate of completion, and the ability to use Hyatt as a recent employment reference.

    The program began in 1998 at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa Bay. The Florida State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) took a chance and funded the program on a fee-for-service basis. DVR’s mission is to help individuals with disabilities get a job, keep a job, or return to work. Our challenge, then, was to prove that people with disabilities could be successfully employed in this work environment. The first summer of our program was incredible—all of our students obtained employment.

    Our Hyatt partners began asking why we just trained in the kitchen. “Why not other departments? Why are we just training at one Hyatt Hotel? Why not Orlando and Miami?” 16 years later, Hands On @ Hyatt is operating in 32 Hyatt Hotels in states all across the country.

    Thanks to the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR), our expansion has been a relatively easy process. CSAVR is a professional organization made up of VR Directors in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the territories.  This includes the Directors of the vocational rehabilitation agencies that serve individuals who are visually impaired. CSAVR sponsors the National Employment Team, and they have been extremely involved with every new Hands On @ Hyatt location. Also, local school districts have helped us identify youth who could benefit from this type of training.

    To date, the partnership has trained over 1,500 individuals with disabilities and observed above average post-training employment outcomes. It is with great pride that I accept this award on behalf of our program, our partners, and the individuals that we serve.

    John Ficca is the founder and Program Director of Hands On Educational Services, Inc.