California Hispanics Lagging in Sign-Ups for Health Insurance

Sandhya Somashekhar, Washington Post, December 16, 2013

California has surged ahead in implementing the federal health care law, but it is lagging in one way that could have major implications for the program’s success: Latinos appear to make up only a small fraction of those who have signed up.

The numbers have prompted concern, because so many of the state’s uninsured are Hispanic, and it could be a sign that enrollment efforts targeted toward Latinos are behind nationwide as well.

Hispanics are a linchpin of the health care law because they comprise more than a third of the estimated 29 million people who are eligible to buy coverage on the online insurance exchanges. The population skews young, making Latinos an important demographic for the Obama administration, which is seeking to keep premiums low by coaxing healthy people to join the insurance pools.

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Less than 5 percent of the 109,296 people who enrolled in health insurance in California in October and November identified themselves as Spanish speakers, according to data released by the state on Thursday–a strikingly low number considering that more than a quarter of the state’s population primarily speaks Spanish, and Latinos comprise nearly half the number of uninsured who are eligible to buy coverage on the state exchange.

Although the figure does not reflect the number of Latinos who probably registered in English, the 4,498 sign-ups among Spanish speakers were significantly less than the 6,453 enrollments among speakers of Asian and Pacific Islander languages–a group that makes up about 10 percent of the state population, according to census data.

The state has had an aggressive $86 million promotional push devoted to boosting enrollment among Californians of all stripes, including Latinos.

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A big promotional push by the White House aimed at Latinos won’t start until January. Numbers specifying how many Hispanics have enrolled have not been released.

“Our expectation was always that the number of enrollees, including Latino consumers, would be low in the first months, but we expect enrollment to increase over time,” Katherine Vargas, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement.

But the technical problems that beset the federal marketplace, HealthCare.gov, was a major setback. The administration was forced to cancel a “Hispanic Week of Action” that was planned for late October. The Spanish-language version of HealthCare.gov, CuidadoDeSalud.gov, became active only last weekend even though it was scheduled to launch with the English site Oct. 1.

One problem identified by workers helping Hispanics sign up for coverage around the country is the confusing process for submitting applications from people whose families include U.S. citizens as well as legal and illegal immigrants.

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