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California health exchange faulted for not reaching out more to Latinos

Some California politicians are turning up the heat on the state's health insurance exchange to boost Latino enrollment in Obamacare before a March deadline.

U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) held a sign-up event Thursday in Orange County and prodded the Covered California exchange to do more to reach the area's large population of uninsured.

Statewide, about 1.2 million, or 46%, of the 2.6 million Californians eligible for federal premium subsidies under the healthcare law are Latino. But Covered California said only 20% of enrollees through December described themselves as Latino on their application.

"We've been disappointed with the Latino numbers and with Covered California," Sanchez said. "I think we are starting to turn it around."

The exchange is expected to release updated enrollment figures next week.

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Critics have faulted the state exchange for a shortage of enrollment counselors in the field, translation glitches on its Spanish-language website and for not publishing a paper application in Spanish until late December.

Backers of the healthcare law also worry that some Latinos are fearful of signing up because members of their family entered the country illegally. Exchange officials have tried to assure people that no application information is shared with immigration authorities.

Covered California is boosting its marketing to Latinos and hiring more bilingual employees before open enrollment ends March 31.

At the opening of Thursday's event in Santa Ana, Sanchez praised Covered California's executive director, Peter Lee, for his work launching the state marketplace.

But she challenged Lee and the exchange to step up their efforts in the coming weeks, particularly since California is so critical to the national rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

"Everyone wants to see what California does," Sanchez said to a small crowd in downtown Santa Ana. "We expect a whole lot more from you."

Covered California has enrolled 728,000 people in health plans through Feb. 1. Federal data show that another 850,000 people have been deemed eligible for an expansion of Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program.

"We're doing OK, but OK is not good enough," Lee said at the event.

In addition to members of Congress, some state lawmakers have also faulted the exchange for the low turnout among Latinos.

This week, state Sen. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) introduced legislation that would change the composition of Covered California's board by adding two more members. Torres said the exchange needs to improve customer service and work on enrolling more Latinos and young people. 

“After almost three years on the job, it is indisputable this board of directors needs additional expertise to provide oversight of staff in areas where improvement is needed," Torres said in a statement.

ALSO:

Medi-Cal seen as relief to some, confusing burden to others

California exchange gets $155 million to improve service, enrollment

Lawmakers criticize hiring of Obamacare enrollers with criminal records

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

chad.terhune@latimes.com

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