Maxine Coleman wears many hats in her job as Neighborhood Development Coordinator for the City of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “Part of what I do is work with neighborhood associations, neighborhood watch (groups), the mayor’s financial education initiative, as well as the homeless coalition,” Coleman said. “I am the liaison between neighborhoods and city government. I cover a lot of territories in my position.”
A Hattiesburg native with more than a decade of service in municipal government, Coleman’s experience made her an ideal candidate to take the lead role on a city team that was awarded a $30,000 National League of Cities (NLC) planning grant. Now, she has an opportunity to assist the city in winning an even larger NLC grant of $250,000, a sum that could ultimately help Hattiesburg extend health coverage to many of its uninsured children and families.
One of 12 finalists out of 20 cities invited to bid, Hattiesburg is anticipating the plan it developed with the initial grant will merit being among the six selected for the larger one. The quarter million dollar prize that each is to receive, through an Atlantic Philanthropies grant to the NLC, will support efforts to expand education and outreach to families whose children do not have health insurance. The overall objective is to boost outreach to the uninsured, determine eligibility and increase enrollment. The announcement of winning cities is expected in early July.
Heidi Goldberg, program director of Early Childhood and Family Economic Success at NLC, explained that the primary focus of the project is to get city government officials – mayors, senior level city staff, and councilmembers – to play a more active role in promoting children’s access to health care. Though some officials have been active, Goldberg said, “The level of awareness varies from city to city.”
The initiative falls under the NLC’s Institute for Youth Education and Families. Unlike the operational side of NLC, which is funded by dues from of its 1,600 direct members as well as state municipal leagues, which are comprised of another 19,000-cities and townships, the institute’s programs rely on foundation grants.
Coleman credits Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree for championing the opportunity. She said Dupree is an active participant in NLC conferences and symposiums, and encouraged the formation of a team that pulled city personnel together from different areas of expertise.
Mississippi was one of the states that declined the federal government’s offer to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. By some estimates, an additional 300,000 Mississippians could have qualified for Medicaid coverage had the offer been accepted, and more children would have likely been enrolled as the newly eligible adult Medicaid applicants determined what choices were available to them and their families.
“That (the state’s opting out of Medicaid expansion) was a barrier we addressed in our business plan (for NLC)” after meeting with Medicaid officials, Coleman said.
Coleman also said the NLC grant proposal team took a cue from a past public awareness campaign. “We figured if there were people who did not know about the Earned Income Tax Credits, there are people in Hattiesburg and its surroundings who may not know they’re eligible for Medicaid and CHIP [Child Health Insurance Program].”
The team included experts from the medical and education fields, who received valuable input on budgeting and formatting from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg during the development of the city’s proposal for the larger prize. “We asked them to come to the table to help us,” Coleman said of her USM colleagues. “They have been on board ever since the first meeting and are committed to helping us with the implementation phase.”
Still, it was Coleman’s local network that provided a roadmap for how to develop a plan that would reflect the community’s needs. “We didn’t want to speak for the community; we wanted the community to speak for themselves. We had focus groups with residents. We had focus groups with service providers. We had focus groups with the Hispanic community,” Coleman recalled. “We were trying to address the city as a whole because we have a diverse population.”
There are roughly 147,000 residents in the greater Hattiesburg metro area. At only three percent, the city’s Hispanic population is small compared to that of non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, but it has doubled in size since the 2000 Census as labor-intensive jobs have attracted new workers and immigrants.
Coleman said she and her colleagues have taken care to ensure that outreach within the Hispanic population has included Spanish-language speakers and materials. They started by interviewing Spanish-speaking families at a Head Start program not far from city hall.
One of the team’s tactics involved targeting three low-income neighborhoods surrounding schools with free lunch programs. The idea was to establish a marker of where families would most likely also be eligible for the income-based Medicaid and CHIP programs, Coleman explained. The over 250 survey responses gathered from those neighborhoods were enough to yield a statistically valid sample, according to the USM partners, and yielded insights that became key elements of Hattiesburg’s plan.
“If I need to get anything done in Hattiesburg,” said Kim Robinson, who works out of Jackson with the Children’s Defense Fund, “I call Maxine. We’ve worked together in the past, although on different issues, but I’m really familiar with her grassroots approach and the work that they’re doing to make sure children have health insurance.”
“Once we get rolling,” Coleman enthused, “we will outreach to nearby Perry County and Marion County. We want to be sure that any child who is eligible gets enrolled.”
Even if Hattiesburg doesn’t win the grant, Coleman said the learning experience has been invaluable, adding that the National League of Cities staff has encouraged the team to submit their plan to other foundations, with Atlantic Philanthropies planning to cease operations in a few years.