Churches help with last-minute enrollment push for state health exchange

Churches serve as 'trusted messengers' in push to enroll Marylanders in health insurance.

As a self-employed tow-truck driver, Raimundo Mariano went for years without any health insurance.

"It is very hard because I had to pay cash for my doctors," said Mariano, a 58-year-old native of Brazil.

But once the federal Affordable Care Act expanded the insurance options available to people without employer-provided health insurance, Mariano was able to sign up for a plan. And on Sunday, he spent time with insurance navigator Pat Gussio to pick an insurance plan and sign up for coverage for this year.

"It is very helpful," Mariano said after completing the online enrollment at Celebration Church in Columbia.

Celebration Church, a predominantly African-American congregation tucked behind the Long Reach Village Center, was one of more than a dozen churches in Maryland that partnered with the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange for an outreach blitz dubbed "Super Health Sunday."

Some churches, including Celebration, were set up to enroll people in health plans. Others hosted information booths.

Super Health Sunday had been scheduled for last weekend, in advance of the close of the enrollment period on Jan. 31. But the record-setting snowfall pushed both the enrollment deadline and Super Health Sunday. The new deadline is this Friday.

Andrew Ratner, marketing director for the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, said churches have proved valuable partners in getting the word out about insurance options, especially to African-Americans and Latinos. Historically, he said, those groups have been underenrolled in insurance.

Churches are "trusted messengers" for information about health insurance, Ratner said.

Ratner said outreach work with churches is part of the reason that enrollment so far this year is up over last year, both overall and with African-Americans. With one week left to go in the enrollment period, 30,000 African-Americans had signed up for insurance, he said, compared to 23,000 last year.

Dr. Chesahna Kindred Weaver, a member of Celebration Church's health and wellness ministry, said the church has given out information about the health exchange in the past, but this was the first time it offered on-site enrollment.

Weaver, a dermatologist, believes churches can play an important role in spreading information about insurance options.

"At churches, we have a way to connect with people that sometimes other organizations just can't reach," she said.

At Celebration Church, workers from the Door to Health Care used a basement computer lab to work with anyone who needed help signing up for insurance on the state's exchange — whether they were church members or not.

The Door to Health Care is a "connector entity" that helps people sign up for insurance in Western Maryland, Carroll County and Howard County.

"We're enrolling anyone and everyone we can," said Jasmine Batchelor, the Howard County operations manager for the Door to Health Care.

The Door to Health Care's navigators help individuals and families work through the website and understand the different plans and whether they can earn a credit to reduce the cost of insurance or if they are eligible for Medicaid coverage.

The website has been modified after a disastrous initial rollout in 2013, but many people still are challenged by the terminology of health insurance.

Geovanna Rybik, an outreach coordinator for the Door to Health Care, said people are gradually understanding more about the health exchange and how they can get insurance.

"It's still a very new concept," she said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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