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President Barack Obama gives a "thumbs up" while greeting the crowd after speaking about the Affordable Care Act, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md. The president is promoting the benefits of his health care law before new insurance exchanges open for business next week.

Kern community-based organizations netted a $500,000 grant to help them get hard-to-reach people -- such as the homeless and recently released inmates -- enrolled in health insurance.

Jan Hefner, director of community wellness programs for Mercy and Memorial Hospitals, said she confirmed they received the one-year grant with a phone call Thursday morning, but she did not know the grant's official start date.

The money comes from The California Endowment's Get Covered Initiative, which is designed to jump-start enrollment in the Affordable Care Act among people newly eligible for coverage.

The Endowment is a private health foundation.

"We know that there are (insurance options) out there, but there are too many people out there who still think that Obamacare has been overturned by the Supreme Court or that it's just not something that they're going to be able to access," Hefner said.

The grant to the Community Health Initiative of Kern County at Mercy and Memorial Hospitals will be used to hire 12 people, some of whom will work at the hospitals. Other new hires will work out of Kern Medical Center and Garden Pathways, a local nonprofit that provides mentoring services. Some of the money will also buy iPads to be used by enrollment counselors.

Hefner said the focus will be enrolling groups that are difficult to reach -- including the homeless, people recently released from incarceration, emancipated foster youth and single men.

The goal is to get 18,000 residents plugged into insurance coverage.

Hefner said the message community groups want to get across is that everyone needs insurance, not only in case of illness or accident, but also to protect themselves from going bankrupt under the weight of medical bills.

"We're excited to get more people out (enrolling people) in the community and just letting people know that they don't have to wait until January 1," said Jacey Cooper, KMC's executive director of managed care.

Starting Tuesday, Kern County residents can sign up for health plans through the state-run health benefits exchange Covered California. An estimated 64,000 residents will be eligible for premium tax credits to lower their cost of buying insurance via the exchange.

Kern denizens with annual incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level -- $15,282 for a single person or $31,322 for a family of four -- will qualify for Medi-Cal next year under the expansion of that program. But these folks can enroll now in the county's Low Income Health Program -- the Kern Medical Center Health Plan, which will transition into Medi-Cal on Jan. 1.

Cooper said the health plan's additional staff will go to the Kern County Sheriff's Office's Lerdo facility and the Kern County Probation Department to work with inmates who are being released from the jail and folks meeting with their probation officers.

Applying for insurance under these programs can be "pretty complicated" and having someone to walk an applicant through it increases the chances his or her application will be successful, Cooper said.

"It's not going to cost the consumer anything to meet with an enrollment counselor," Hefner said.

Other Kern-based groups have also been awarded big bucks to get people connected to health care coverage.

Federally qualified health centers Clinica Sierra Vista and Omni Family Health -- formerly known as National Health Services Inc. -- received $703,236 and $306,324 federal grants, respectively, for outreach and enrollment assistance. Those grants were announced this summer.