Chad Terhune, Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2014
California keeps signing up people for Obamacare policies at a rapid clip, but the state’s struggle to reach uninsured Latinos is drawing more criticism.
The Covered California exchange said Tuesday that more than 625,000 people have enrolled statewide in health plans through Jan. 15 as part of the Affordable Care Act. Even though enrollment opened in October, more than 500,000 of those enrollees signed up in just the last six weeks.
That surge in volume has often overwhelmed the state exchange and many of its participating health plans. Covered California said 40% of enrollees surveyed said the sign-up process was “difficult,” and the average wait time at the state’s call centers hit 49 minutes this month.
Supporters of the healthcare law say those broader service issues are hampering enrollment among Latinos, who are expected to be among the biggest beneficiaries of President Obama’s signature law.
An estimated 1.2 million, or 46%, of the 2.6 million Californians eligible for federal premium subsidies are Latino. But Covered California said only 20% of enrollees through the end of December described themselves as Latino on their application.
“Latino enrollment is still falling short given how big a share of the uninsured they are in California,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. “Without reaching Latinos in large numbers, it’s hard to reach the enrollment goals overall. It also means people are going without benefits they are eligible for.”
Some state lawmakers say they are running out of patience over the slow sign-ups among Latinos. They fault the state exchange for a shortage of enrollment counselors in the field and for not publishing a paper application in Spanish until late last month. They worry that missing out on this relatively young and healthy population could undermine the viability of the exchange.
The state recently boosted its advertising aimed at Latinos and began sending mailings to 1 million Spanish-speaking households. The new outreach focuses on the premium assistance that many people will qualify for and the availability of no-cost preventive care under the healthcare law. Latinos represent more than half of California’s 7 million uninsured people.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said that “it’s a longer educational process” for many uninsured Latinos who have had little experience with health insurance.
“We have much work to do over the next three months to build on our outreach to this important population,” Lee said. “In-person enrollment will be more critical in the Spanish community.”
The state has about 3,600 certified enrollment counselors and more than half of them speak Spanish, according to Covered California. That’s far short of the state’s original goal of 20,000 enrollment workers in the field overall. About 10% of the exchange’s call-center workers speak Spanish.