He Joined the Ranks of the Uninsured to Help Fight a Disease

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

People from across the country are arriving for the inauguration of America's first black president. Who are these people? In their stories is a portrait of a nation. One in a series.

Lloyd Kelly spent 18 years working for the Illinois Department of Human Services, helping poor people figure out whether they were eligible for Medicaid. Then one of his best friends died of AIDS, and Kelly began thinking about the people he knew whom the virus had claimed.

"I stopped counting at 247," Kelly recalled. So in 2003, he quit his job and started a foundation to try to slow the inroads HIV was making among his neighbors, black residents of Chicago's South Side. In the process, he gave up the health coverage he had received from the state and became, himself, one of the nation's 46 million uninsured.

The Let's Talk, Let's Test Foundation's shoestring budget, it turned out, never seemed to have room for health benefits. In 2007, the organization began to pay health premiums for 15 employees who worked full time but stopped after a few months. The expense was too great.

Kelly, 48, knows he is fortunate that his health is good. Still, he said: "I have a tooth right now that is literally disintegrating in my mouth. It is broken off so bad, but there's nothing I can do about it." In a more perfect health-care system, he said, "I would love to do the preventive things . . . but it's just not possible."

So when Kelly thinks about the many things he is counting on President-elect Barack Obama to do, he says, "I'm certainly hoping that he creates a policy that is rooted in preventing people from being sick in the first place, that he begins to look at the root causes of illness, that, you know, the government could come up with a way for every individual to at least get a basic checkup every year."

"I believe with all my heart," he said, that the new president is "really going to change the world."

Kelly is such a believer that, volunteering for his representative in the Illinois legislature, Constance A. Howard (D), he has organized a fleet of five buses that on the inauguration's eve will carry people through the night from Chicago to the nation's capital. At $150 apiece, 750 people have signed up, and calls are still coming in, he said.

In July 2004, Kelly was at the Democratic National Convention in Boston to hear the keynote address that brought Obama's oratory to national notice. Last August, Kelly was in Invesco Field in Denver to hear Obama's acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. And for years at the edges of Chicago's political circles, he has known Obama well enough to say hello; they last spoke at a January 2007 breakfast where the then-presidential candidate took time to pose for photos with two teenagers Kelly had in tow.

"Why would I not be here for this?" Kelly said of the inauguration. The five buses are to leave Monday at 4 p.m. from the Jewel-Osco store near the Dan Ryan Expressway and arrive by 6 a.m. at the Capitol Skyline Hotel, a few blocks south of the Capitol, for breakfast and freshening up. By 9 a.m. Wednesday, the buses will be back in Chicago.

"This guy has the opportunity to change the world," Kelly said. "He's always talked about health care. I think it's going to be huge. . . . Our Constitution -- everything starts with the individual. We should say it starts with a healthy individual."

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