As we started doing last week, we’re giving you a better view into CCHI’s team and work through our “Humans of CCHI” series in the run up to Colorado Gives Day. We sat down with CCHI’s Policy Team to get their perspective on why and how they do the important policy work they do. You can get to know Debra Judy (Policy Director), Caitlin Westerson (Policy Manager), and Savanah Mcdaniel (Policy Fellow) too by reading along with our interview below! Then, you can head over to our Colorado Gives Day profile to schedule your donation!
How long have you worked together?
Deb: We’ve been working, what, 3 years?
Caitlin: Yeah, linkedin says it’s my anniversary today!
Deb: Happy anniversary!
Caitlin: Someone should have brought me a cake…
How long have you known each other?
Deb: 5 years. We started working together when Caitlin was working at the Chronic Care Collaborative.
How do you work as a team?
Deb: We work 5 feet apart. As a result, we are always bouncing things off of each other; there’s a lot of back and forth — sharing of ideas, challenging of ideas, providing feedback. I think we push each other to think in new ways.
So what’s your team approach to advocacy work?
Deb: As a team, we are always looking for opportunities to move policy forward. We are always willing to work with diverse players in the system – insurers, providers, hospitals, drug companies – to see what policies we can move forward for consumers. One day, we might be aligned with the industry, and the next day opposing them, but through it all we try to keep the lines of communication open and understand where other players are coming from.
How did you learn to develop those relationships?
Deb: It’s not always easy.
Caitlin: I think the more you talk to people, the easier it becomes. There are patterns you learn about–how you set up meetings with legislators, how you approach people, the spiel you give them about the work you’re doing–some are easier than others, but at the end of the day you have to remember they’re just people.
Deb: Yeah, I think you just have to recognize that just because our state legislators have a title of representative or senator, it doesn’t mean you can’t connect with them on a human level. Of course there are certain rituals and decorum around lobbying and you can learn that process, but at the same time you also realize these are folks who are there because they want to make Colorado better. So, we might have different ways we think that’s best done, but we all have a shared desire to move us forward as a state,
Caitlin: I agree, people don’t run for office unless they care about the community that they live in. Especially in a state where it’s part time, you just have to remember that they are all there because they want to make things better for Coloradans.
How do you see the world more broadly because of the work you do?
Caitlin: I have developed a much greater sense of understanding of people who are different from me. It has helped me understand why diversity, equity, and representation from different communities are so important in the larger context of the world.
Deb: I think this work has really helped me better understand other people’s values and their experiences. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric and what’s happening on the surface, but this work encourages me to step back and ask what is really driving people and why. This work also makes me think about power and privilege and how those issues play out in policies.
What do you admire about each other?
Deb: Her passion and her sense of humor. We can do this work and always laugh and have fun! That’s why I like being part of the team.
Caitlin: I really enjoy that Deb is so easy to talk to and bounce ideas off of, and I love that she’s so authentic. She genuinely cares about people. It’s so easy to work with her because she can really see the people through the policy.
What is something you have worked on as a team that you’re really proud of?
Deb: A lot of the legislative work we have tag teamed on.
Caitlin: Our free standing emergency room work this last year was really great. I think it was a big win for Colorado consumers and CCHI. I learned a lot through that process.
Deb: We work together a lot in the legislative space, talking about who’s going to do what and where and why and how do we share our talking points, or how do we work to defeat a piece of legislation or move it forward, and being able to strategize on some of those efforts.
Caitlin: We’ve done a good job at building different relationships. Either with different people or different relationships with the same people that allow us to tackle things differently.
What have some challenges been that you’ve helped each other navigate?
Deb: She walks me back from the edge when I get a little irrational or upset. She helps put things in perspective. We’ve been able to work through changes in environment, whether it’s organizational, or at the capitol–being able to say: “There’s a new challenge, a new difficulty here, a new relationship, how do I maneuver and manage that?” I think Caitlin has also helped drive home the equity piece. She really keeps reminding me of that piece of our work when I get so wrapped up in something– like “What does this really mean for people? What does this mean for people who face structural barriers?” She really helps me bring that back into the conversation.
Caitlin: We do a good job of walking each other back from acting too much on emotion, but at the end of the day we are not politicians and we are not political strategists–we are advocating for people. We really help each other keep that in sight.
How do you define advocacy in your work?
Deb: Advocacy comes in so many different forms. I think we do advocacy on so many different levels. We work at the systems level but we might do it on a one-off situation with an insurance company, or through advocating for regulatory changes.
Caitlin: I think in the purest form, advocacy is standing up for what you believe in or standing up for what you know is right. We do it at the systems level, but advocacy is also the individual person standing up for themself or their community. Like when people stand up to their own insurance company or any institution saying “these are the things that you promised me” or “these are the things that I have a right to” and advocating for themselves to get what they deserve.
What are some goals for the future?
Deb: Well, we’re not going to run a marathon together…
Caitlin: No, we’re not. I don’t know where you were going with that. It’s not gonna happen.
Deb: We have certain goals in terms of legislation and policies that we’d like to move forward. We really want to see a more equitable health care system. I think we’re very concerned about issues around cost. So if we can move some policies either in the regulatory context or legislatively to achieve those things, we want to do that.
Caitlin: More equity in health care is really important to me because in the advocacy world in Colorado, there is no one that really takes private health insurance on with the leadership capacity that we do. Other advocacy organizations do other things really well. Figuring out a way to make sure that the policies that we’re working on are equitable and are expanding access not just to the same people who have historically had access, like those who are more positioned to be able to buy plans out of pocket, is really important to me. There’s also a piece of that too with rural Colorado, where there are access issues, affordability issues, etc. So I think the biggest challenge and the biggest thing that I would like to see us tackle is figuring out what the policies are that are going to work for all of those different people, without having conflicting policies. It’s hard.
What keeps you motivated?
Caitlin: Watching Deb do yoga.
Deb: Chocolate, and working with people who share a similar passion. It would be hard to come to work everyday if I didn’t feel like work is hard but it can be fun. Coming to work with people who share a similar passion and seeing that we can make some progress, although it may be slow, but knowing that some of those policies that we implement are going to make a difference in people’s lives.
Why did you choose health?
Deb: It was kind of a fluke for me, if I’m being honest. I thought I was going to do education policy. It was the opportunity that presented itself. I got out of my masters in social work right when the Affordable Care Act was passed. So there was a lot of stuff going on in that space and it was an exciting time. So I fell into it.
Caitlin: That’s so interesting! There’s so many parallels. I also wanted to do education policy, and then fell into an internship in health policy and really liked it. I came into this world right when the Affordable Care Act was being implemented, right before the first open enrollment period. My first experience was teaching people about the ACA and what it covered and what it didn’t, and how it was different than the system at the time. I really enjoyed that work. There was a lot of hope. Especially for people with chronic diseases, who before that were just always denied or always asked to pay an astronomical amount for health care.
Deb: I learned quickly – in the first quarter of getting my masters in social work – that clinical work was probably not my forte. I come from a law background so policy was a natural fit; I felt more comfortable working on systems change, at the community level, than in direct service.
Caitlin: I have a degree in Sociology, and I really like Sociology, but when I looked at my future I didn’t want to teach or do research, because Sociology is a lot of talking about the institutional problems but there’s never the conversation of “what do we do to fix them?” I think policy was the “this is how we’re going to solve the problems” for me.
Were there any people who inspired you to do this work?
Caitlin: I had a professor in college that did ethics in social work, and I thought that was just the coolest thing, and another one that did a lot of work around the civil rights movement, why social movements work or don’t work–they were both very inspirational in trying to do more with my life, especially in the social justice world.
Deb: I had some professors that I very much admired. I was on campus at a time when there were a lot of interesting tensions. This really ages myself but we had a cross burning on campus, and you never talked about sexual assault or sexual violence, or LGBTQ issues, I mean that was not the era. I think there was a coming of age in that. I think living in that time affected me. We were going through some interesting changes, so engaging with some of my professors in that space.
How about you Savanah? What’s your job and what do you do everyday?
Savanah: I’m the policy fellow. I do research for our policy team and anything that comes up on the consumer engagement side. I basically work on research so that we can take those issues that we hear in the community and know more about them and push them at the state capitol so that we can make change for consumers and hopefully make healthcare more affordable.
What’s your goal?
Savanah: So basically, reducing prices and lifting the financial burden of health care from the consumer. That doesn’t always make it more accessible, but sort of everyone is financially burdened by health care, so making health care more affordable will make it more accessible. And although there’s more work to be done on the accessibility side, for the most part CCHI and in my position I am more focused on financial equitability.
When you’re talking about affordability, does your passion come from a specific point or life experience?
Savanah: My passion around health care affordability I think really has always been there, because my sister had a lot of health issues growing up, so I spent a lot of time as a kid in hospitals and different doctors offices. So I saw how difficult that all can be, and sort of emotionally taxing. And then having the financial burden on top of that is just really overwhelming for anyone to deal with. So I was always passionate about health care access. In college, I majored in Feminist and Gender Studies and just having that knowledge on inequality and how resources that should be accessible like health care are more inaccessible to marginalized groups, has really sort of I guess propelled that passion and made me want to do health care policy research.
Was there someone you found inspiring as an advocate in that experience?
Savanah: No, and that’s probably why I am passionate about health care and health care access. Because I remember going to neurology appointments with my sister, and I mean I was little so I didn’t understand anything. But having, you know, two working-class parents, and even though my mom had a college degree it was still difficult for her because she didn’t do anything in neuroscience, so it was still difficult for her to understand what the best options were, and what was necessary, and what we could afford. And if you don’t have that knowledge and you don’t have anyone who has that knowledge advocating for you then you aren’t able to make the best decision that you could, if you had someone helping you out. That’s what makes me want to be in health care.
Is that something you want to do or you just want to make the system better so it never gets to that point?
Savanah: I sort of want to work within the current health care system and try to reform it so that we don’t have these issues of inequity and a lack of access for people so that they can get the health care that they need to survive.
How does being an advocate change how you see the world or the issues around you?
Savanah: It definitely does act as a lens, because you have more experience with other people’s personal experiences, you know more about them. So having those faces to pair with the issues and know that real people are having issues paying for insurance, because it’s just way too expensive, or you know, knowing that when someone gets a $90,000 hospital bill when it should have been $5,000, which is still not affordable… so yeah you see the issues as less removed. You see them as things affecting people. And you can empathize better, even if you aren’t directly affected by those issues, you know someone who is.
On the policy side, you get really deep into an issue, and it gets really wonky and weedy really quickly, and knowing all of the wonky-weediness and then knowing how it’s affecting people is really important, because it just shows you how complex the system is. If it takes someone who has any policy experience hours to understand it, it might be impossible for someone without that experience to understand it, or without the connections to run things by or to communicate with other organizations to get their take.
What’s something you’re proud of?
Savanah: I think I’m proud anytime I hear about research I’ve done, like when I’m in a meeting with other organizations and they’re talking about a subject that I’ve been doing research on, or a publication CCHI’s done that’s been circulated, knowing that the research that I’ve been doing is actually getting out to people so that they know of the issues, hopefully means and is representative of coalition building and getting everyone on the same page and the same understanding of an issue, or the same depth of knowledge on an issue so that when all these organizations and all these other advocates do talk to legislators, that we can really push for change that helps consumers.
Thanks for reading! Now you can head over to our Colorado Gives Day profile to schedule your donation!