Photo by Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer.

By Ann Doss Helms,
Originally published by The Charlotte Observer: Feb. 04, 2015

Bklyn Littlejohn of Charlotte is eager to add her fiancee to her health plan when they marry later this year.

For many that might be a routine detail. Not so for Littlejohn (her first name is pronounced “Brooklyn”), who couldn’t get married until October, when a federal judge made same-sex weddings legal in North Carolina.

“Every little step counts,” says Littlejohn. “This isn’t just a lifestyle for us. It’s a life.”

Because lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have long faced barriers to health care and coverage, North Carolina enrollment advocates are working with the national Out2Enroll campaign to make sure they know they have new options under the Affordable Care Act.

In the final weeks of 2015 sign-ups, which end Feb. 15, Out2Enroll has done cultural sensitivity training for enrollment workers in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Asheville. Local and national staff are staging enrollment events aimed at the LGBT community, such as a Sunday service last month at Charlotte’s Sacred Souls Community Church where about 30 people got subsidized coverage.

“Folks don’t think of health care as an equality issue, but in many ways it is,” said Katie Keith, an Out2Enroll leader who has been working in North Carolina.

The push originated with a Center for American Progress study showing that in 2013, about 1 in 3 low- and moderate-income LGBT people lacked health insurance. In 2014, when the ACA provided income-based aid to pay premiums, that dropped to about 26 percent, the study found.

Out2Enroll is working with Get Covered America to get the word out that the ACA bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It also stops insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, which had kept many HIV-positive and transgender people from getting health insurance.

Jermaine Lee, program director for Charlotte’s PowerHouse Project, says his HIV-positive status kept him uninsured for many years. People with the virus, which destroys the immune system, can get their treatment covered through the federal Ryan White Program, he said, but often lack coverage for other health issues – a bigger challenge as people live longer with HIV.

PowerHouse, a Beatties Ford Road center that focuses on reaching men of color who have the virus or are at high risk, is among the groups holding events to get the word out. Lee said he’s also working online social networks to let young people know they can get covered and start health habits that will protect them.

“There’s a lot of stigma around being gay,” he said, “a lot of stigma around being (HIV-) positive.”

— This article is done in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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