The lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have cast a shadow over social and economic progress throughout the country. Hospitals and clinics were one the first industries that faced an increased demand of services, with decreasing capacity to address patients’ needs. Chester County, Pennsylvania, has felt this strain with the closing of two hospitals in the region, leaving a gap that decreases opportunities for health care access, especially for communities that were already vulnerable prior to the pandemic. Phoenixville Community Health Foundation (PCHF) is one of the many organizations supporting communities seeking and accessing health care and health services in the area. To truly understand the challenges of accessing healthcare in Pennsylvania, the PCHF team partnered with the BeHeard BeHealthy PA project in March 2020 to host community listening initiatives throughout the Greater Phoenixville Community.
BeHeard BeHealthy PA is a citizen-centered health advocacy project, a part of Community Voices for Health, a national project supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with technical assistance from Public Agenda and Altarum. The Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) leads the BeHeard BeHealthy project, with the aid of several Pennsylvania-based partners, to build engaged community coalitions that have a voice in decision-making around health policy. In March 2020, BeHeard BeHealthy faced constraints caused by the pandemic, halting the ability to host community conversations and strengthen one-on-one relationships with the community. Viviann Schorle, Program Officer at PCHF, says that BeHeard had to pivot its outreach efforts to accommodate Covid-19 concerns:
The ability to have community conversations in the way we had envisioned from the beginning, has impacted how we can do that. Because not everybody’s feeling safe, or has been feeling safe to do that.
Adjusting to the limitations of the pandemic, PCHF focused on disseminating surveys through their extensive network of community organizations. PCHF relied on its strong grantee network made up of 9 BeHeard BeHealthy community partners and 45+ local organizations serving a variety of citizens including seniors, veterans, and immigration populations. BeHeard BeHealthy surveys are short, 5-10 minute surveys for community members to share their experiences on a variety of topics. Surveys are ongoing and designed to address relevant issues around healthcare including barriers to health care, cost of health services, and the American Rescue Plan Act. To increase reach and accessibility of the project, surveys are provided in English and Spanish; while capacity and limited resources for survey development are scarce, the BeHeard team hopes to provide interpretation for community conversations in additional languages to properly represent different communities in Pennsylvania. Community partners and network organizations share surveys with the people they serve, and ensure that staff are providing context and assistance to ensure everyone is able to participate in the survey process. The BeHeard team has witnessed a steady increase in survey participation with each iteration and has collected a total of 1,200+ surveys across the state.
Following the steady success of survey panels, the BeHeard team has been establishing routine in-person or virtual community conversations, ensuring proper safety protocol by following Covid guidelines. Community conversations are organized for community members to congregate and discuss the issues present in their community. Community conversations rely on the extensive grassroots network created through BeHeard’s various partnerships to recruit participants, host sessions, and facilitate conversations. The Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, a statewide housing advocacy group, works with 17 community partners who aid the BeHeard project and host community conversations during community events, such as housing workshops. Community conversations have provided the space and opportunity to unearth the frustration and challenges that community members face accessing health, housing, and relevant policies. Keena Minifield, Policy and Program Coordinator at the Housing Alliance, cites several recurring themes that arise in these conversations, such as:
- Barriers to housing including rising cost of rents and moving costs, lack of housing options, and ongoing landlord tenant issues
- Statewide benefit programs that impose income caps for populations that need support
- Lack of access to health care including mental health resources and services
PHAN and the BeHeard BeHealthy PA team are looking forward to connecting community members and leaders that have been participating in community conversations with each other to strengthen relationships and leverage partnerships. Jessy Foster, Community Engagement Coordinator at PHAN, recognizes that grassroots movements take time and that the pandemic has slowed down the last two years of BeHeard’s work. However, the BeHeard team looks forward to connecting with additional regional partners, hosting more community conversations, and building a statewide coalition of health care advocates and supporters. The data findings from the surveys and convenings collected over the past two years are intended to be used to inform health policy in the state. Continuing the momentum built by citizen-centered conversations and advocacy through BeHeard has created a platform that can be shared with local and state decision makers who have the power to create change in the realm of healthcare and health policy in Pennsylvania.