Rev. Melvin Whitley from Ebenezer Mission Baptist Church in Durham said he plans to be more involved in helping people in his community sign up for insurance
Rev. Melvin Whitley from Ebenezer Mission Baptist Church in Durham said he plans to be more involved in helping people in his community sign up for insurance this year. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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<p>In North Carolina, about one in five blacks lacks health insurance. Now grassroots organizers are targeting black churches to enroll people in Obamacare for the coming year.

By Rose Hoban

Black North Carolinians have higher rates of blood pressure than whites; are more likely to develop a number of different cancers; and have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease.

[pullquote_left]People who want help signing up for insurance can call 1-855-733-3711 to find out who in their county can help them.[/pullquote_left]They are also more likely to be uninsured: About 18 percent of North Carolina’s black population lacks health insurance, compared to 15 percent of the state’s white population. And fewer blacks get health insurance through their employers: Only 38 percent of blacks get covered through their workplace, compared to 58 percent of whites.
Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. encouraged Raleigh pastors to help their congregations enroll for health insurance at a meeting at the Martin Street Baptist Church on Monday. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

It’s numbers like these that prompted several dozen pastors and at least one imam to gather in Southeast Raleigh Monday to learn about how to help get people in their congregations enrolled in health coverage through the Affordable Care Act (often called Obamacare). This year’s enrollment period started on Nov. 15 and runs through Feb. 15, only half the length of the enrollment period last year, which was the first year of the health law’s full implementation.

“The good news is this: We’re far ahead of where we were last year by way of enrollment, in part because we don’t have the challenges around the website that we had,” Rev. Derrick Harkins told the gathering of pastors who met for lunch at the Martin Street Baptist Church. “But we’re far from where we need to get.”


Harkins, who works with the national organization Enroll America, had come to North Carolina from Washington, D.C., where he’s the pastor of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. He told the group that they act as “validators” of information for people in their flocks.

“Where there’s ministry, there’s a real message that resonates in people’s lives when we talk abut health care,” said Harkins, who said tending to the physical needs of the people is part of tending to the “wholeness of the spirit.”

“If I have a family that’s got anxieties, I’m going to hear about it,” he said, “and I need some way to respond to it.”

Harkins walked the group through a toolkit developed by Enroll America to help pastors talk to people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning about the importance of health care and the availability of getting coverage through the ACA. The toolkit contains suggested themes, such as “Loving our Communities by Getting Them Covered,” for sermons to be delivered during February’s Black History Month.

Another sermon idea tied to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is “Realizing the Dream: Health Coverage is Here – Getting our Communities Well and Covered.” The toolkit also contains a link to an online glossary of terms that pastors might need to know when talking to congregants who are signing up for coverage.

Pastors were encouraged to place drop boxes in their churches to collect cards from people seeking information on how to sign up for insurance. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Pastors know who doesn’t have financial means, who needs that little extra help, because they know who comes into the church office, into the deacon’s office,” said Angela Cameron, an organizer for Enroll America who does outreach to the religious community. “Think about how often they come to your church and need help paying the electric bill or the gas bill or they need help with something like that.

“Help them with that and also give them some info about the Affordable Care Act.”

Cameron told the pastors they could put information about how to enroll in health care into their weekly bulletins, make an announcement from the pulpit or recruit volunteers to staff phone banks to follow up with people who’ve indicated they’re interested in information.

“Make sure the community that’s around your church knows that your church has the information about the Affordable Care Act,” she said. That could include simply putting out a drop box to collect “commit cards” filled out by people who might be looking for information. The cards go back to Enroll America and the organization coordinates efforts to follow up with people who want to sign up.

Spiritual, not political

Volunteers from Martin Street Baptist Church have been giving out information to people in the community who come to the church’s monthly “Blessing in the Bag” event on the second Saturday of every month. Church volunteers like Rhonda Currie hand out as many as a thousand boxes of food to needy folks from the nearby community.

“We have information about the Affordable [Care] Act and the opportunities to enroll and the need to get enrolled,” she said.

Rev. Melvin Whitley of Ebenezer Mission Baptist Church in Durham said he plans to be more involved in helping people in his community sign up for insurance this year. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Martin Street’s pastor, Rev. Earl Johnson, said the ACA was one of his church’s important projects.

“One one occasion last year, we got 20 or 30 people signed up in one day,” said Johnson, who has three enrollment events planned at the church. “We have to do as much as we can to help people.”

He said that pastors have a priestly role of baptizing babies and serving their own congregations, but they also have a prophetic role to the communities surrounding their churches.

“You have to go to the poor house, you have to go to the jailhouse, you have to go to the community and meet people and talk to the heart of the people,” Johnson said.

Rev. Melvin Whitley from Ebenezer Mission Baptist Church in Durham said he plans to be more involved in helping people in his community sign up for insurance during this year’s enrollment period.

“I don’t remember Jesus coming running across anyone without healing them,” Whitley said. He bemoaned the fact that some pastors might be reluctant to get involved in something that might be perceived as political.

“Health care shouldn’t be dubbed a political issue; it’s a quality-of-life issue,” Whitley said. “Health care is something that should be affordable and accessible for everyone. I believe in that. I believe that Jesus would have thought the same.”

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