Why Faith Leaders Are Teaching Their Communities About Obamacare

Faith leaders were an important group pushing red state leaders to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. And with open enrollment for Medicaid and the law’s insurance marketplaces inching closer, they’ll be crucial to making sure that Americans know how, where, and when to sign up.

To that end, Maryland officials are currently holding a summit with over 150 faith leaders in which they explain the nuances of the law — and urge religious leaders to distribute that information by educating their congregants and communities. Faith leaders are enthusiastic about the plan, since their day-to-day dealings with their communities gives them a unique perspective on Americans’ needs and struggles:

The Rev. Janet Craswell, of the Salem United Methodist Church in Brookeville, described the summit as very helpful. Although her church is in a small Maryland community, Craswell said she has been hearing from a wide variety of people who will be impacted by the overhaul, including families with unemployed and uninsured young adults, people with disabilities and small business owners who are confused and concerned about how the law will impact their businesses.

“We see people every day,” Craswell said. “I mean, we are dealing with people week to week, and we’re also dealing with people at the point of crisis where they’re in hospitals and in hospice and they’re having to deal with major life issues.

In fact, coordinating Obamacare enrollment efforts with faith leaders could be great news for another population that has largely been ignored in all the hubbub and politics of the expansion: Americans who already qualify for the program, but have never enrolled. In a 2006 report, the Commonwealth Fund estimated that 62 percent of Medicaid or CHIP-eligible children were not enrolled in either program, and 66 percent of Medicaid-eligible low-income parents were not enrolled.

Much of that discrepancy has to do with underwhelming state outreach efforts stemming from a lack of adequate funding, as well as the reality that many Medicaid-eligible populations simply don’t know they have the resource available to them. “Even in states that have more of a commitment to bringing new populations in, they don’t have the budget to do outreach and take out ads,” said Melinda Dutton, a partner at a health consulting firm assisting states with Obamacare implementation, in an interview with American Medical News.

But with the renewed national push for Medicaid enrollment ramping up this year, some health advocates hope that these previously unenrolled Americans will get swept up in the effort and “come out of the woodwork.” That’s where faith leaders are crucial to the undertaking, since they have greater access to the rural or isolated communities that Medicaid may have overlooked.

For example, the homeless — or those on the cusp of entering transitional housing programs — often do not enroll in Medicaid due to barriers such as a lack of proper identification or a Social Security card. These populations also tend to distrust government institutions — but faith leaders and community organizations could help walk them through the process in a way that the government can’t, helping secure their medical stability. And with over 25 million Americans expected to gain coverage under Obamacare in the coming decade, state, federal, and public health officials will need all the help that they can get.