Camden, N.J.residents read literature and learn about health care at a rally on Oct. 1, 2013.
Camden, N.J.residents read literature and learn about health care at a rally on Oct. 1, 2013. - 

"It's been a faith journey."

That's how the Reverend Heywood Wiggins sees Camden's struggle toward affordable healthcare.

It's Day One, and the healthcare exchanges have just opened across the country. Wiggins is preaching passionately to a motley congregation under a baking noon sun. Hospital executives in suits and shades mingle with baseball-cap-clad residents. Primary-colored banners championing reform wave in the crowd.

They've gathered outside the Vision of Hope Center on dusty Atlantic Avenue to celebrate opening up healthcare to thousands here.

A reverential hush descends.

The Camden pastor steps up to the makeshift podium. "Today is a day of rejoicing… This day begins the process of liberty and healthcare justice for all."

Cheers of agreement ring out. You don't have to be a church-goer to feel the sense of communion here.

The groups behind the rally – the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers and Camden Churches Organized for People, among others - are heavily invested in seeing the sign-up succeed.

"This means a lot to me," says Patricia DeShields from Project HOPE, a community health center for the homeless. "There are a lot of faces that I see that… are going to have the opportunity to manage their health problems."

That wasn't always the case. After a decade of working together and sharing data, Camden's providers made some painful discoveries.

Nearly half the city's residents visited the ER in one year alone. The most common diagnoses? Colds, sore throats, earaches and viral infections. Ninety percent of Camden's healthcare costs were being spent on just 20 percent of patients.

Something had to give.

But those in the health business here insist the collaboration isn't driven purely by dollars.

"It's not just the money that it costs us as a provider," says Patient Access Director at Lourdes Health System, Joan Braveman. "It's [also about] the quality of life for the patient."

The "journey" to bring affordable care to one of America's most impoverished cities has been long. Too long says the Coalition's founder Jeff Brenner.

"I'm sick and tired as a front-line provider of taking care of people who lose their insurance. It's a tragedy."

A primary care doctor and community icon, we recently spoke to Brenner about winning a McArthur "Genius" Grant for his work in Camden. He says there's still some way to go.

"We can't give up… We've got a lot of work to do to get this thing over the finish line."

And what of the doubters? Volunteer Shirley Bush says they need some big ideas of their own. "They know that our current system is broken. But they have nothing to bring to the table."

Something else there's talk of here is hope.

Two young guys loitering by the information desk, looking to sign up, stop to talk. One of them – Bert – calls it a blessing that he can finally be part of the system. His friend, Asbah, works part-time, but hopes insurance will bring a better future. "I feel like it's an opportunity… We don't get these opportunities that much."

Brenner is keeping the faith too.

"My hope is that every American… gets incredible healthcare. And we can do that. We're America for God's sakes."

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