Faith leaders emerge as key to health law outreach

Religion and the nation’s new health law haven’t exactly been viewed as friendly partners in the public eye, with most of the attention focused on religious employers’ objections to covering the cost of birth control.

But under the radar, leaders in some Illinois faith communities are spreading the word about the Affordable Care Act to make sure their uninsured members know about new benefits available starting in 2014 and about the approaching enrollment start date.

Nationally, President Barack Obama’s administration and advocacy groups are courting leaders of churches, mosques and synagogues to join the outreach effort, a lesson federal leaders learned when working with faith-based groups to help launch the Medicare prescription drug program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“I feel it’s my place” to educate church members about the law, said the Rev. Carole Hoke, pastor of Fondulac Congregational Church in East Peoria. “I’m ordained in the United Church of Christ. Our focus point is on justice, and health care justice is a huge piece of that.”

Recruiting church leaders is a strategic way to target Latino and African-American communities where strong religious beliefs intertwine with health and sickness, said Aida Giachello, a research professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“Their faith leader can give them a reality check: God is making this Affordable Care Act available to all of them,” said Giachello, who has advised state and national leaders about how to reach out to minority groups. Pastors, she said, “can say, `Yes, God is in control. Yes, God is engaged in a miracle and God is providing resources through the Affordable Care Act.”’

Nearly 17,000 faith and community groups have attended monthly Web-based seminars held by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through its Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. During one recent session, clergy were encouraged to add a portal to church websites in English and in Spanish.

Enroll America, a Washington-based nonprofit group that’s funding a nationwide campaign to inform the public about the health law, is also reaching out to religious leaders, holding a training session for African Methodist Episcopal Church leaders in Las Vegas and canvassing events in other cities.

“We’re encouraging them to put announcements in the weekly bulletin and make literature available for people to pick up at church,” said Ashley Allison, director of constituency engagement for Enroll America. “If a church is comfortable inserting our literature in their bulletin we’re more than happy to provide that for them,” she said. “We meet churches where they are.”

Leaders across faiths are divided over Obama’s health care overhaul, with some actively challenging aspects of the law in court. Objections to coverage of birth control have taken up most of the headlines, frustrating some religious clergy members who support the law, in whole or in part.

“That absolutely is not the whole story. That is a very small part of the story. Our primary concern is that people have access to health care. It is a matter of justice and equality,” said the Rev. Shirley Fleming, a retired public health professional, ordained minister and activist.

Fleming, a member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, has organized forums to educate the community about the law. Obama was a longtime member of Trinity, but left in 2008 after the now-retired Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s teachings became a political issue.

Fleming gets support and materials from the Illinois-based Campaign for Better Health Care, a coalition of health advocates founded in 1989 that has a network of more than 1,400 congregations. The group is working with a United Methodist seminary to offer training for church leaders on the health law Oct. 1 and 2; the event will be streamed live to several Chicago-area churches.

The new coverage under Obama’s law starts Jan. 1, and it requires most people to get insurance or pay a small penalty. Starting Oct. 1, people across the nation can start shopping for insurance on a new online marketplace. Most middle-class Americans will get help paying for coverage through new tax credits. Many poor people will qualify for Medicaid.

The law’s rollout is likely to be confusing to many people and they will turn to clergy to answer their questions, the Rev. Gary Gunderson said. He’s slated to give the opening remarks at the training at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston.

“Faith leaders, like it or not, are going to have to interpret and understand this stuff and they’re going to have to explain it,” said Gunderson, vice president for faith and health of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

What’s more, he said, faith leaders can help hospitals learn to communicate better with people who’ve been charity patients in the past but now have coverage to pay their bills. Mission-based hospitals are interested in transitioning their charity care programs into lasting communitywide health improvement, he said.

The health law is “a huge landmark” in the history of mission-based health care, Gunderson said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for the faith community to help make it work.”

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