University of Delaware Cooperative Extension educator Maria Pippidis was part of a team that has been presented the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Jeanne M. Priester Award for outstanding contributions to the Cooperative Extension System and the public in the area of health and wellness. The team, made up of Cooperative Extension personnel from UD and the University of Maryland, was given the award at the National Health Outreach Conference and recognized for its work spreading the word about the Smart Choice Health Insurance program, which helps consumers make informed choices concerning health care insurance needs. Pippidis, New Castle County director and Extension educator for family and consumer sciences, said she was pleasantly surprised to hear that the team had received the award. “I didn’t know that an award nomination had gone in and so I’m very pleased for our Health Insurance Literacy team,” said Pippidis. Since 2013, the team has developed and pilot tested curriculum, amended the curriculum as needed and offered trainings to other extension educators in 32 states across the country on how to use the Smart Choice Health Insurance program in their states. “When we trained and certified educators from across the country to use the curriculum, they were also collecting the evaluation data and turning it in. This really helped to show that the curriculum was effective. The Priester Award recognized these individuals as well,” said Pippidis. With the help of those educators across the country, Pippidis said they were able to get enough information from 1,600 participants to do a statistical analysis on the effectiveness of the program. An evaluation specialist in Maryland used the data to analyze the numbers and showed that the program was having an impact on participants. “We can honestly say that almost every participant who participated in the program increased their knowledge, skills and confidence in making a health insurance decision or choice and increased their confidence around understanding health insurance terms,” said Pippidis. Pippidis said the team encounters people who enter the program knowing they are confused and then also encounter individuals who think they are informed about insurance literacy only to find out their understanding of certain insurance terms is different than the reality. “The term co-insurance is a good example. I don’t know how many people told me that they thought this term meant both themselves and their spouse were covered by the insurance plan as opposed to it relating to a cost term describing a percentage of the allowable amount that they’re responsible for. It’s a huge difference in understanding,” said Pippidis. Other difficulties encountered include things like the differences between the types of plans and how to calculate costs. “What we’re trying to teach is consumer decision-making and what are the best processes and strategies to do that. In addition, we are providing resources, ideas for next steps to find out more about the market place, or questions you can ask your employer about your options,” said Pippidis. The curriculum has been delivered both in person and through the use of distance technology. Additional programs are also being developed for the program. “The first program was called Smart Choice and this focused on how to make a choice around health insurance programs and health insurance options. What we’re working on now is Smart Use – how do you use your insurance effectively?” said Pippidis. Pippidis said that throughout the whole project, the leadership at both UD, with Michelle Rodgers, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and director of UD Cooperative Extension, and at Maryland, with Bonnie Braun and Teresa McCoy and their administrative team, has been outstanding. The leadership has supplied financial and personnel resources so that the team can function well and the curriculum can have a foundation in research and literature, and they have helped to promote the importance of Extension in addressing health and health insurance literacy nationwide through the Extension system. “We know if people don’t have insurance or can’t afford insurance, then they’re not going to access care. Potentially, their physical and mental well-being will diminish, which means that they won’t be able to work or go to school, which in turn means that they won’t be able to earn which means they won’t be able to get insurance,” Pippidis said. “There’s this circular connection between health and financial wellbeing that is really important to address. Our goal is to help people afford insurance by picking the right insurance and using it wisely so they can go to work and go to school.” Other team members from the Maryland include Lynn Little and Bonnie Braun, co-leaders, University of Maryland, Extension; Mia Russell, Extension educator; Virginia Brown, Extension educator; Patsy Ezell, assistant director for family consumer sciences; and Teresa McCoy, assistant director for assessment and evaluation, University of Maryland Extension. Article by Adam Thomas This article can also be viewed on UDaily.