Testimony of Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen, Director of Early Childhood, before the Committee on Health

February 14, 2024
Person Testifying: Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen
Title: Director of Early Childhood, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee on Health
Type of Hearing: Oversight Hearing

Good afternoon, Chairperson Henderson. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today. My name is Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen and I am Director of Early Childhood for DC Action, member of Under 3 DC, and a member of the Early Childhood Educator Equitable Compensation Task Force. I am also a Ward 5 resident.

DC Action uses research, data, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. Our collaborative advocacy initiatives bring the power of young people and all residents to raise their voices to create change. Through our signature coalitions, we empower families and communities. We are also the home of DC KIDS COUNT, an online resource that tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being. 

My remarks today will focus on the Health Benefits Exchange Authority’s roll-out of the HealthCare4ChildCare. This is a critical new program funded by the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund designed to ensure that all staff of early childhood education programs receive health benefits, alongside fair pay, so that they can provide quality early learning for infants and toddlers while supporting their families.

As you know, for too long, early childhood educators have borne too-low wages, a dearth of benefits and supports, and a resulting limited opportunity to grow in their field. The Council, in establishing and funding the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund, has made needed and transformative change in the District’s early learning system by not only compensating early educators on par with their peers in DC Public Schools, but by also ensuring that the Pay Equity Fund could support free and affordable health benefits for child development facility staff and their families. Thank you for your efforts to make this possible. DC is truly leading the nation on this issue.

The Health Benefits Exchange Authority, which receives a transfer of funds from OSSE to implement HealthCare4Child Care, has been an excellent steward of this new program. We are pleased that employer participation in HC4CC has doubled in the last year, while individual enrollment has more than quadrupled. This is due in no small part to HBX’s willingness to listen to community partners, bring them in on strategy and outreach, and adapt their carefully laid plans based on learning during implementation. This approach is too often missing in government implementation of critical programs, and could serve as a model for how to thoughtfully execute policy decisions. 

Core to HC4CC’s approach has been engaging with partners from the beginning of its work to learn the lay of the land and be connected with early learning leaders to identify the unique needs and qualities of early childhood education programs. HBX did not design the perfect program from the start, but quickly learned and adapted their approach based on feedback from those they serve to be as effective as possible. Through this learning, HBX has strengthened its outreach methods, revised the types of health care the program offers (from silver to gold plans), and taken a hands-on approach to supporting early learning program operators and individual staff with understanding and making decisions about health care. 

A strategy that HBX employed early on that has proven to be successful is its engagement of  an advisory group, composed of and led by early childhood leaders, of which DC Action is one. This group regularly reviews enrollment data that HBX shares, discusses barriers and opportunities in engaging employers and staff, and makes recommendations about how to strengthen HBX’s strategy. From working closely with this community advisory group, HBX learned that there was a need for outreach to employers and staff from trusted messengers with knowledge of the landscape of early childhood education in DC. Based on the recommendation of the group, HBX established the HC4CC Outreach and Engagement Partnership (OEP) Program Grant that engages five early education leaders to conduct one-to-one outreach and education, and to facilitate a warm handoff to HBX. These partnerships have been pivotal to not only increasing enrollment in HC4CC, but also in informing HBX about adaptations needed to improve the program. 

Another unique approach HBX has taken is to closely review individual educator eligibility for public benefits to ensure that those educators eligible for Medicaid receive a warm handoff and support enrolling. This removes the burden from early learning staff of navigating complex eligibility processes in multiple systems and maximizes public dollars by using federal funds first. Further, by design of the Pay Equity Fund, early childhood educators’ salaries have begun to increase, which will naturally result in changes in their eligibility for public programs. HBX works closely to monitor these changes and to coordinate with the Department of Healthcare Finance to facilitate a smooth transition between programs.

Last year, HBX recognized that its technology to set up and administer HealthCare4Child needed updating and to their credit worked collaboratively to obtain the resources to follow through. 

In January, HBX administered a survey to early childhood education programs to learn more about their participation in HealthCare4ChildCare, including how they learned about and enrolled in the program, and their additional needs. One key finding was an interest from employers in dental benefits, in addition to health benefits. We look forward to working with HBX, and with Council if further authorization is needed, to explore opportunities to support this need.

We look forward to continued growth in early learning program staff enrollment in HealthCare4ChildCare, and to working closely with the Health Benefits Exchange Authority to identify opportunities to continue strengthening HC4CC. This program makes critical strides in building a more just DC; and crucially, serves as a national model for building thoughtfully designed, responsive, and equitable early learning workforce supports.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I welcome your questions.