The Woman Who Turned Obamacare Into Neighborhood Self-Help

Bridgette Richardson Hempstead knows almost nothing about football, but she recently found herself standing on the sidelines of the Seattle Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field, with microphone in hand and a large TV camera projecting her image on a Jumbotron to 70,000 excited fans as she belted the national anthem. She said some on the field were crying.

“It was pretty incredible. They said they had never ever had anyone sing the anthem like that and have a reaction from the community like that,” Hempstead says. “Too bad they lost.” (To be fair, the Super Bowl champion Seahawks played the Dallas Cowboys, this season’s best team in the NFL.)

Passions run high in electrically charged communities united in a single cause. That cause might be beating the Cowboys—or, in Hempstead’s day job, making sure that women of color have access to appropriate health care. A breast-cancer survivor and head of the trusted health advocacy group Cierra Sisters, Hempstead gives assurance and advice to those who are afraid to go to the doctor or flummoxed by the world of health insurance.

Hempstead is just one of the roughly two dozen community leaders that make up King County Health Director Daphne Pie’s insurance-enrollment army. Others include organizers from the Open Arms Perinatal Doula Program—which is deeply rooted in Seattle’s Latina and Somali communities; the Gay City health project; and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service.

The County Council adopted an “equity and social justice” strategic plan four years ago that directs all its municipal departments to target the areas of greatest inequity in whatever they are doing. For a transit agency, that means expanding bus services to poor neighborhoods. For the health department, it means digging into the county’s insurance-enrollment statistics to ferret out the populations that are under-covered.