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D.C. groups get grants to help residents with health law

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City officials in the nation's capital on Wednesday awarded $6.4 million in grants to nearly three dozen community groups tasked with helping residents navigate benefits within the new health care law.

D.C. Health Link announced awards ranging from $80,000 to $400,000 to churches, local nonprofits and other groups who will send out "in-person assisters" to raise awareness about President Obama's signature reforms and help consumers determine if they qualify for government subsidies to participate in the city's health exchange, Medicaid coverage or other benefits.

The organizations will be touting the Affordable Care Act at local events they would attend anyway and ramping up outreach in libraries, partnering businesses and houses of worship. Each assister must receive about 30 hours of training.

"It does take a village, and it will take a village, for us to be successful," said Mila Kofman, executive director of the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange.

The announcement at a downtown office building offered a ground-level view at how jurisdictions that embraced Mr. Obama's law from the start are preparing to get residents enrolled on their health exchanges, starting on Oct. 1, for coverage that takes effect on Jan. 1.

"We are laser-focused on October, opening our doors and doing well for our consumers," Ms. Kofman said, noting the city has met crucial deadlines in setting up the exchange's information-technology infrastructure.

The exchanges, or "marketplaces" as they are also known, are an integral part of the law offering premium tax credits to those who earn between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

The District and 16 states are building their own health exchange. More than half the states, 26, opted to let the federal government set up one for them, and the remaining seven states are sharing the duty with the feds.

Authors of the law provided the markets and financial assistance to help Americans comply with the "individual mandate" requiring almost everyone in the country to obtain some form of insurance.

The Obama administration hopes young and healthy residents will sign up for insurance on the exchanges to keep premiums in check when sicker Americans with pre-existing conditions enroll, since they can no longer be denied coverage.

But critics of the law say premiums will skyrocket in some states because of the law's stipulations.

Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., obtained $375,000 from the pool of federal funds, a fact Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican, condemned as "a sad reminder that despite assurances from the president when the law was passed, Obamacare will in fact give taxpayer money to abortion providers."

Opponents also say the in-person assistance programs are ripe for abuse and could allow bad apples gain access to enrollees' personal information.

Ms. Kofman said organizations selected by the District must have their finances in order and that individual assisters will be fingerprinted and subjected to criminal background checks.

The D.C. grantees were chosen from 87 applicants, who had requested an aggregate amount of $75 million.

Reviewers and officials from the exchange selected applicants based on their ability to cover a broad spectrum of the District, particularly in areas with a high proportion of uninsured residents. They also sought groups with assisters who could speak Spanish or Amharic, the latter a reflection of the city's large Ethiopian population.

The District has a relatively low proportion of uninsured residents, but officials said the resources will go a long way toward reaching those who still lack coverage.

"Amen, somebody," said Rev. Henry White, senior pastor of Brown Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, which received a $95,000 grant.

Congressional staffers who live in the city will be among the enrollees in the D.C. exchange, because of a provision in the law aimed at making sure members of Congress and their aides feel the effects of the reforms firsthand.

The Obama administration sparked controversy when it recently decided to let the government offer a longstanding subsidy that offsets up to 75 percent of members' and staffers' premium costs, even though they will be gaining coverage through the exchange.

The proposed rule by the Office of Personnel Management said individual lawmakers will designate who is an official staff member subject to the exchange.

Ms. Kofman said the exchange is engaged in preliminary discussions with Capitol Hill to make the transition "as seamless as possible," but she does not yet have an official roster or tally of congressional employees who will enter the city's exchange.

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