Engaging Communities of Faith to Help Americans Gain Health Insurance

Nov 13, 2013, 2:46 PM, Posted by

A pastor gives a sermon in Nashville, TN.

With the opening of health marketplaces and the Affordable Care Act’s partial expansion of Medicaid, our nation has an opportunity to substantially expand health insurance coverage for all Americans, and ultimately, to significantly reduce racial disparities in access to affordable coverage.

But to achieve that goal, communities of color must attain robust enrollment gains. That’s why RWJF is working with religious leaders and their congregations to help make sure that all who are eligible enroll.

The Problem

According to United States Census data for 2012, approximately 48 million Americans are uninsured. It is a problem that cuts across all racial and ethnic groups, but is most acute in two, resulting in 19 percent of African Americans and more than 29 percent of Hispanics living without health insurance.

In 2009, the Institute of Medicine documented what many suspected: The uninsured are much less likely to obtain preventive care; get timely diagnoses for illnesses, including cancer; receive treatments for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma; and take prescription medications as recommended by physicians.

Beyond the health consequences of uninsurance, there are steep costs for our economy. We all pay the bill for indirect fiscal burdens associated with the uninsured—including illness and injury, decreased workforce productivity, developmental and educational losses among children, and shorter life spans, costing the U.S. economy between $100 and $200 billion each year.

Engaging Faith Communities

We recognize the significant role that faith communities play in American life, particularly among minority populations, so we are engaging religious leaders and their congregations to spread the word about new coverage options.

We recently made a grant to the NAACP to help fund national outreach to religious leaders to help them share information about opportunities for their congregants to enroll in new, affordable insurance options. A similar grant to the National Council of La Raza will support their efforts to educate the Latino community about enrollment opportunities.

In conjunction with Community Catalyst, RWJF works to strengthen the voices of people promoting comprehensive health coverage for all Americans through Consumer Voices for Coverage (CVC), which provides technical assistance and support to health advocates in 11 states. Examples of CVC-supported coalitions working with faith leaders and their congregations demonstrate what’s possible when people are engaged by neighbors they know and trust.

  • The Maryland Citizen’s Health Initiative has created a Faith Ambassadors Program, training local congregants to provide health insurance education in English, Spanish, French, Korean, and Arabic. The project began at the Koinoia Baptist Church in Baltimore and now includes over 50 trained ambassadors throughout Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore. More than 125 congregations across the state are on a waiting list for visits from Faith Ambassadors.
  • In Alabama, we support the Arise Citizens' Policy Project, which works with congregations, missionary boards, and gospel radio stations across the state to educate the uninsured about their coverage options. Recently, they created a handy pre-formatted guide about health insurance for clergy to drop in to their church bulletins.
  • In Virginia, we are investing in the commonwealth’s oldest faith-based advocacy group. A nonpartisan coalition of faith communities, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, is working through a broad range of congregations to engage people of faith and educate Virginians about health coverage.

We also support the “Health Care from the Pulpit” program, which is part of Enroll America’s Get Covered America campaign. The program works with hundreds of local and national faith-based organizations across the country to host enrollment events and invite pastors to talk about the Affordable Care Act with members of their congregations. A “Health Care from the Pulpit” event in Florida was recently covered here.

Together with these and other grantees, we are committed to ensuring that 95 percent of Americans have access to stable, affordable health coverage by 2020. To achieve this, we’ll continue to work with minority- and faith-based organizations across the country with the goal of improving the health and health care of all Americans.

If you are a leader or active member of a congregation, we encourage you to explore how the programs highlighted in this post can help you develop your own approaches to the people you worship with, and help them learn about opportunities to enroll in new health insurance options. If you have related experiences you’d like to share with others, we welcome your comments below.

John Lumpkin

John Lumpkin, MD, MPH, is senior vice president and director, targeted teams for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.