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Covered California faulted for low Latino enrollment

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.

State Sen. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) said the exchange's enrollment figures for Latinos are "absolutely unacceptable."

"This is all about the customer experience," she said. "We are putting obstacle after obstacle in front of people and we are preventing them from getting the healthcare they deserve."

State Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), chairman of the Senate Health committee, said he shares some of those concerns. "We need to increase the number of Latinos signing up," he said.

"It's not necessarily about more marketing," Hernandez said. "It means better response times on the phone, a Spanish-language website that is up and working, and getting enrollment counselors in those communities."

Covered California said it's making progress among Latinos and noted that there's still time before open enrollment ends March 31.

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.

Levitt, of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said: "It took a while for community resources to really ramp up. At the beginning of open enrollment there weren't always people available to help folks apply."

At Valley Community Clinic in North Hollywood, where more than 60% of patients are Latino, officials said demand for Obamacare has been strong.

Judi Rose, the clinic's chief development officer, said people were showing up "in droves" and signing up at a rate of about 75 per day in health plans or an expansion of Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program. In addition to the 625,000 people enrolled in health plans, the state said Tuesday, 584,000 people had been deemed eligible for Medi-Cal through last month.

But delays with the state's enrollment website often bog down the process, she said, and it takes time to train enrollment workers on the complexities of the healthcare law.

"The whole process has been difficult for everybody, regardless of their ethnic background," Rose said.

Lee said the exchange is trying to learn from any early missteps. "While many thousands have enrolled and gotten coverage seamlessly," he said, "there are undoubtedly Californians who have not had a good experience in getting coverage."

chad.terhune@latimes.com

Twitter: @chadterhune

Times staff writer Eryn Brown contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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