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Organizers preaching the word of Obamacare

Church settings used to build trust

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Every Sunday, Hannah Gravette goes to church to spread the word about Obamacare to Southern Californians.

First, her team of community organizers will rise during the service to let people know what paperwork they will need to sign up for coverage. One week later, they get congregants enrolled through Covered California, the state-run health care exchange tied to President Obama's signature law.

The team is reaching out to uninsured members of 12 congregations around San Diego — many of them Hispanics in Catholic parishes — about their options under the Affordable Care Act, the sweeping overhaul that has been a fierce point of contention in the media and on Capitol Hill for more than three years.

It can be hard at times, especially among families with mixed immigration status who do not want to put themselves on the government's radar, but the organizers say they have an advantage.

"People trust information they get at their church," said Ms. Gravette, who works with the San Diego Organizing Project, a member of the PICO National Network of faith-based organizers.

From coast to coast, stakeholders who want to see the health care law succeed are teaming up with church groups and faith leaders to grab a foothold in communities and enroll people in state-run and federally facilitated insurance markets tied to Obamacare.

The Department of Health and Human Services said partnerships with the faith community are central to its promotion of the law. They base their claim in part on lessons learned from the rollout of programs such as Medicare's prescription drug benefit and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Many faith-based groups work with low-income populations who stand the most to gain from the law's subsidies for private coverage or its expansion of Medicaid in states that chose to do so. But unemployment and illiteracy frequently stand in the way of connecting these populations with health care coverage, organizers said.

Ayana Porter, a trained in-person assister in the nation's capital, said her group is reaching out to fatherless men who are either unemployed or work in jobs that do not provide health care coverage.

"They have more confidence in us being sincere and forthright," Ms. Porter said of enrollees who enter church settings. "There's so much in the media — a lot of negative press."

In the Midwest, the Minnesota Council of Churches is using "faith ambassadors" to reach out to congregations and let them know about benefits through MNsure, the state's health care exchange.

"A lot of people who are sitting in the pews are eligible for these programs," said the Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin, the council's executive director.

The council also is spreading the word to people in its program for refugees to the United States, in part because "they're not used to the medical system that we have," she said.

The health care push is not the first time faith-based groups have sought to turn hot-button issues out of Washington into non-political missions. Evangelical leaders entered the fray over immigration reform last year, although it was not a united front across the country.

Faith-based opposition

Similarly, not everyone of faith is onboard with Obamacare. America's Catholic bishops and some Protestant groups hold deep reservations about a rule tied to the law that mandates larger employers to insure contraceptives, including morning-after pills that some believers equate to abortion.

That opposition got a boost New Year's Eve, when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor put a temporary hold on the contraception mandate for an order of Catholic nuns — just hours before the mandate was due to take effect — as the courts weigh legal challenges to the administration's policy.

The Family Research Council, a conservative think tank in Washington that researches issues from "a Christian worldview," frequently rails against Mr. Obama's law. The council has said people who encounter members of Congress over the holiday break should urge them to fight the contraception mandate.

"The HHS mandate forces all employers to provide health plans that include drugs that can destroy human embryos, contraceptives and sterilizations for free even if they have religious or moral objections to such coverage!" the Family Research Council said in a blast email to its followers.

Others see Mr. Obama's reform as a lifeline to the neediest and a reflection of biblical teachings. To those who espouse this view, the din of controversy that surrounds the law is frustrating.

"It kind of breaks my heart," Ms. Porter said, "because there's a need, and I'm seeing the need."

On Dec. 21, Ms. Porter sat in front of her laptop in the basement of St. Luke's, a Roman Catholic church on the eastern edge of the District, and pointed to a nun about 30 feet away. The sister, who declined to give her full name but said she had gone without health care coverage for about three years, was the first person Ms. Porter successfully walked through the entire enrollment process that day on D.C. Health Link.

"It's a relief," the sister said.

During the week, Ms. Porter puts in hours as a trained in-person aide down the road, at Good Success Christian Church and Ministries, which has partnered with contractor HCD International to enroll people in the city's exchange.

The enrollment center at the church holds weekday hours, but project manager Jarard E. Farrar said he also ventures out to bring young people into the exchange. On recent weekends, his team spoke to young people who dined at Denny's after leaving nightclubs between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.

HCD International's president, Jean C. Drummond, said the church is a "refuge" for low-income and unemployed residents who deal with a range of medical issues, including diabetes and HIV, in one of the city's poorest wards.

"With vulnerable populations, it's really about awareness, awareness, awareness," she said. "You've got to have it on Sunday from the pulpit, on Monday at the laundromat, on Tuesday at the kids' school, on Wednesday at the barber shop, on Saturday at "

"At Denny's," Mr. Farrar said.

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