More Latinos are signing up for Obamacare coverage in California after a slow start, and the state is spending millions of dollars more on Spanish-language ads ahead of next month's enrollment deadline.
The Covered California insurance exchange said Wednesday that 828,638 people overall have enrolled in private health plans through mid-February, and an additional 1 million Californians have been deemed eligible for an expansion of Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program.
The pace of enrollment has dipped since late December's peak level when thousands of applicants rushed to meet a deadline for Jan. 1 coverage. But the exchange and insurance companies are anticipating another last-minute surge before open enrollment closes March 31.
Many of the people enrolling so far previously had health insurance. Persuading uninsured Californians, who are predominantly Latino, to get coverage has been a tougher sell, experts say.
"Very few people are excited to purchase health insurance," said Micah Weinberg, a health policy expert and senior advisor to the Bay Area Council, an employer-backed nonprofit in San Francisco. "This is a three- to five-year project to add millions of uninsured to the rolls."
California said it hasn't tracked how many enrollees were previously uninsured, and data aren't available yet on how many Californians bought policies outside the state marketplace.
About 1 million Californians had their existing health coverage canceled at the end of last year because the policies didn't fully comply with the healthcare law.
"We don't have good numbers on how much we have reduced the uninsured," said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California.
But Lee said the exchange is making progress among Latinos after a disappointing start. He said 28% of enrollees last month identified themselves as Latino, compared with 18% for October through December.
Latinos represent more than half of the state's uninsured population, and many of them qualify for federal premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
"We're glad to see increased momentum for enrollment in the Latino communities, but we still have work to do," Lee said.
Some health-law supporters have sharply criticized the exchange's Latino outreach efforts to date. They have faulted Covered California for having too few Spanish-speaking enrollment counselors in key areas, poor translation on its Spanish-language website and for not publishing a paper application in Spanish until late December.
Covered California said it would spend $8.2 million through March on Spanish-language advertising, up 73% from what it spent in the fourth quarter. The state is hiring more bilingual call-center employees and looking to host more enrollment events at Latino supermarkets in Southern California.
The state also unveiled new TV commercials featuring the tag line "Tengo un plan" ("I have a plan"). One shows a Latino father playing soccer with his sons and discussing the benefits of getting coverage.
Exchange officials say feedback from recent focus groups indicates high interest among Latinos and the uninsured in general. But many people also express little urgency to sign up, content to wait until the March 31 deadline.
Rebeca Vidal, 24, said she wants to sign up for health coverage but said she hadn't gotten around to it yet. Her newborn is covered by Medi-Cal.
"I'm hesitant to go to the doctor just in general, and dealing with insurance is kind of the last thing on my list," she said. "If it weren't for the baby, I wouldn't have even looked into Medi-Cal."
She works as a receptionist and stands to qualify for federal assistance toward her coverage. She's heard people mention a fine if she doesn't get a policy.
This year, most Americans who forgo health insurance face a tax penalty of $95 per adult or 1% of their household income, whichever is greater.
Amador Ubrieta, 63, hadn't heard of Covered California and Obamacare until he happened upon an enrollment event last week while waiting for a bus in Santa Ana. The Orange resident runs his own business cleaning houses and doesn't have health insurance for his family.
Ubrieta sat down with an enrollment counselor and in less than 20 minutes he and his three children were deemed eligible for Medi-Cal.
California is a crucial test case for President Obama's healthcare expansion, and it accounts for a large share of enrollment nationwide. Through January, 3.3 million Americans have signed up for health insurance on the federal and state exchanges.
For the first time Wednesday, the exchange said how many enrollees actually paid their first month's premium. The state said about 80% of people who picked a health plan for Jan. 1 paid in time for coverage to take effect.
Many consumers complained about difficulties with paying their bill and getting accurate information from the exchange and their insurance company in December and January. Many health plans extended payment deadlines in response to the problems.
The rate of sign-ups among people ages 18 to 34 held steady at 26% of Covered California enrollment. That age group accounts for 36% of people eligible for premium assistance.
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