Faith Leaders Seen as Key to Health Law ; Can Lead Outreach, Pass Information to Flocks

Article excerpt

CHICAGO - 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 Webbased 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 healthcare.gov 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. …