Families USA produced the Public Policy Toolkit for Enrollment Assisters to give assisters and others the knowledge and tactics they need to be effective advocates.

Enrollment Assisters Can Be Strong Messengers

Enrollment assisters play a critical role in connecting millions of people to health coverage. They work tirelessly to ensure that everyone who applies for coverage has the right information to choose the plan that’s best for them, and to ensure that consumers are able to stay covered and get the health care they need. Assisters are also trusted voices in the communities they serve.

These factors make assisters ideal messengers for educating public officials—including elected officials and other policymakers—about the importance of health care programs that serve consumers.

Understanding Your Role as an Advocate

You may be wondering what it means to “advocate” and whether enrollment assisters are permitted to do it. Being an “advocate” or doing “advocacy” just means that you are contacting your elected representatives or other public officials and educating them about topics that are important to you.

TIP   Assisters are ideal messengers for educating public officials about the importance of health care programs that serve consumers.

The law allows enrollment assisters to participate in advocacy activities, but you may be more limited in what you can do during work hours or if your organization receives specific kinds of funding. So, one of the first steps you should take to determine the scope of your advocacy efforts is to ask your boss or employer which activities you are allowed to engage in while at work. You should then decide what additional activities you can do on your own outside of work (if you choose to do so).

Rules about Advocating during Work Hours

The majority of enrollment assisters work for nonprofit organizations that have 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, and many of these organizations also receive federal money, including federal navigator grants. If either of these circumstances applies to your workplace, your organization must follow certain rules when engaging in advocacy activities. For more information on what makes an organization a 501(c)(3) “tax exempt” organization, visit the IRS website.

It is legal for 501(c)(3) organizations to educate public officials about the issues that are important to enrollment assisters—so long as those organizations do not endorse or oppose specific candidates for public office or engage in partisan activity of any kind. “Partisan activity” means showing partiality to or bias toward a specific person or party, including political candidates or parties, during a campaign or election cycle.

For example, employees of a 501(c)(3) organization can talk with elected officials about the importance of funding navigators, but they cannot say publicly that they support a specific candidatebecause that candidate favors increased funding for navigators. 501(c)(3) organizations must focus on the issue, not the individual candidate or official.

Organizations with 501(c)(3) status are allowed to voice their support for specific pieces of legislation, but this sort of “lobbying” cannot make up a significant amount of the overall work that a 501(c)(3) organization does. (The IRS rules for what makes up a “significant” or “substantial” amount of an organization’s work look at a variety of factors. For more on the IRS rules, visit their website.) In addition, 501(c)(3) organizations may have other legal limitations on what they can support if they receive federal funding for their programs.

A good rule for you to follow is to be sure to check with your supervisor before you engage in any specific advocacy activities during work hours.

Rules about Advocating Outside of Work

Generally, rules that govern 501(c)(3) organizations do not apply to individuals outside of work hours. When you are on your own personal time and are not representing your organization, you are free to support specific pieces of legislation and/or specific candidates. You may also urge your elected officials to support or oppose a specific bill or proposal.

Other Rules Navigators Must Follow

Enrollment assisters should also be aware of other federal and state regulations that apply to navigator entities when engaging in advocacy. For example, navigators must focus their work on the required, core duties of navigators: conducting consumer outreach and education and assisting consumers in the application and enrollment process.

However, many navigator programs are housed within organizations that do other kinds of work besides enrollment assistance. Generally, if those organizations receive federal navigator funds, assisters are not allowed to use those funds to conduct advocacy, but assisters may be able to use other organizational funds for advocacy purposes.

How to Effectively Reach Your Public Officials

Identify Your Issue 

The first step you need to take when you’re planning to contact public officials is to decide which issues you’d like to talk about with them. Is there something you’d like to see changed in your state’s health care system? Are there important programs you believe should be maintained or strengthened?

TIP   Discussing your list of potential advocacy issues with fellow assisters and other health care advocates is a good way to narrow down your topics and make sure your message is focused.

Discussing your list with fellow assisters and other health care advocates is a good way to narrow down your topics and make sure your message is focused.

Once you are clear on your priorities, research who those issues affect and who makes the decisions about those issues.

Identify Your Audience 

Whether you are advocating on a local, state, or federal issue, make sure you are contacting the appropriate public official. Decisions about strengthening and expanding health coverage are made at different levels of government. You need to figure out whether your issue concerns a federal or state program.

For example, if you would like to push your state to adopt the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, you should contact your state legislators and governor. But if you are concerned about federal proposals to cut Medicaid (such as block grants or a per capita cap system), your audience is your member of Congress. (Read more about Medicaid issues like expansion and per capita caps.)

If you aren’t sure who makes the decisions about your issue, call one of your elected officials and ask, or reach out to Families USA.  

Who represents you?

Unsure of who represents you in Congress? Find your Representative and Senators online at OpenCongress.org.

To find out who represents you in your state, visit your state legislature’s website.

Or reach out to Families USA at assisters@familiesusa.org.

Develop a Clear and Persuasive Message

Regardless of the subject you are contacting your elected representatives about, it is important to have a clear and concise message and know what action you would like them to take.

TIP   Articulating the “why” of your message allows you to convey a detailed picture and leads your audience to become more engaged in your message.

Is there a specific policy you want them to support or oppose? For example, you might want them to oppose cutting the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) because CHIP is a critical safety net for uninsured children in your community and across the United States. Or you might want more resources directed to a grant program for navigators because, as an assister, you see first-hand the need for additional resources.

As the examples above illustrate, it is important to know the “why” of your message, as well as the “what.” Articulating the “why” allows you to convey a detailed picture and leads your audience to become more engaged in your message.

Connect Your Message to Your Audience Using a Local Perspective or a Direct Impact 

A public official is much more likely to be convinced of the importance of your cause if you connect your message to a personal experience you’ve had or a situation experienced by the official's constituents. Think about how the issue is relevant to you and to the official.

Personal stories that highlight consumer experiences help put a face on the problems that we continue to see in the health care system. Visit our story bank resource page to learn how you can collect and share stories to have a greater impact, or see our Story Bank Toolkit. For more information on what enrollment assisters and organizations should know about collecting consumers’ health care stories, including how to collect and share stories ethically and the types of consent needed for collecting stories, see our brief: Collecting Consumers’ Health Care Stories: What Enrollment Assistance Organizations Need to Know.

Be Courteous and Respectful in All Communications

Public officials and their staff often have busy schedules and correspond with many constituents and groups that advocate for a range of policies. You can effectively convey your message and make sure your voice is heard by building a relationship with your representatives and their staffs.

We recommend providing clear information and engaging in a civil dialogue to build constructive, meaningful relationships with your public officials in a short period of time. Even if you and the official disagree on an issue, you may find common ground on other issues down the line, and in the future, a public official may look to you as a resource.

You may also want to bring written materials that the official or his or her staff can keep after your conversation is over. This will give the official the opportunity to learn more about the issue—and it is a handy way to give the official your contact information.