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Goodwill Works in Health Care

Money is not the only source of political capital in Washington.

Religious advocacy groups are using their store of goodwill to ensure that lawmakers address their paramount issue: long-term care.

A coalition of religious groups working under the umbrella of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging have combined grass-roots efforts and Hill lobbying to ensure that the elderly and disabled receive sufficient health care.

The result are two bills: the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act and the Empowered at Home Act, both of which will likely be a part of final health reform legislation.

The CLASS Act would establish a voluntary disability insurance program. The Empowered at Home Act would use grants and tax credits to expand access to home and community-based Medicaid services.

These bills would help ensure coverage for a rapidly growing elderly population, a “demographic crisis,— in the words of one faith-based lobbyist, that translates into 78 million people who will be ready for retirement by 2030.

Faith-based groups, including the United Jewish Communities, the Catholic Health Association of the United States and Lutheran Services in America, began working together years ago with an eye toward broad health reform legislation, knowing that it would likely be their only chance to pass sweeping reforms to long-term care, said one lobbyist for a faith-based group.

The groups not only met with lawmakers, but also had their members make a series of calls over the past several months to their members urging passage of legislation. This mirrored similar efforts faith-based groups had made to increase state funding for Medicaid earlier this year, money that became part of the economic stimulus package.

In part, the reservoir of trust between faith-based groups and lawmakers also helps avoid the usual skepticism of business-backed bills meant to benefit particular special interests, said Larry Minnix, president and CEO of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.

Religious-based groups also have a certain moral authority to seek change, said an aide to Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “They don’t have an agenda other than helping people,— added a Senate Democratic aide.

The consensus, noted United Jewish Communities lobbyist Jonathan Westin, is that several faith-rooted providers are well-respected, and trusted by administration and Capitol Hill decision-makers on these “vital issues of national importance.—

But while religious advocacy groups have so far worked smoothly together on long-term care, divisions may arise as health reform language is finalized, a faith-based lobbyist said. In particular, certain groups will have concerns if Medicare or Medicaid benefits need to be reduced to pay for reform, the lobbyist said.

Still, the influence of these groups was evidenced earlier this month when lawmakers and administration officials pledged their support for long-term care.

The lawmakers included Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Emeritus John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Reps. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.).

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Lauren Aronson, policy director of the White House Office of Health Reform, also agreed to support long-term care during the June 2 meeting.

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