Team takes healthcare plan to ethnic areas

Inside Deshi Restaurant and Grocery, standing near the bags of lentils, chickpeas and curry leaves, Nina Sharmin greets customers with a rat-a-tat of questions.

“Do you have a green card? Have you been to the doctor lately?” she asks in her native Bangla.

“Have you heard of Obamacare?”

Here in a tired-out strip mall in Los Angeles’ Little Bangladesh, the answer is often the same. No.


As political forces collide in the nation’s capital over the Affordable Health Care Act, a small army of workers fans across Southern California, going door-to-door and store-to-store in communities where some residents are so isolated that they know little about the healthcare reform or even how to plan for its arrival.

So on a warm autumn afternoon, Sharmin and her team stop at a mom-and-pop markets and knock on residents’ doors to spread the word about enrolling — and the consequences if they don’t. The details of the healthcare reform are spelled out in materials and online in some of the commonly spoken languages in California — Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Tagalog.

But the team, outreach workers with the nonprofit South Asian Network, comb the streets of more insulated neighborhoods, ready to explain Obamacare in Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Punjabi and Gujarati.

It’s just before lunch when Sharmin bumps into Kartick Banerjee, a 73-year-old who immediately pulls out his driver’s license when asked if he’s a legal resident. Banerjee confides that he hasn’t had a medical checkup in years and is unclear on the concept of insurance. But he takes a brochure just the same, promising that his daughter will call her for details.

“It helps to be right at the scene,” says Manjusha Kulkarni, the executive director of the network, which contracts with Covered California, the state insurance exchange. “They need to see you face to face, to hear that you speak their language.”

The neighborhood walks started in July, with a team of workers explaining a concept that seemed utterly foreign to some. “Did you know that all citizens and permanent residents must have health insurance by the year 2014?” they explained, adding, “And if you don’t, did you know the IRS can fine you?”

Along West 3rd Street in Koreatown, with its hodgepodge of cellphone shops, convenience stores and tiny markets, the news that there could be large penalties for failing to get insurance was usually enough to stop strangers in their tracks. Some expressed shock they might be forced to pay $95 per person next year if they fail to get insurance — and as much as $650 per person by 2015.

“I did not realize this is going on,” said Sami Noble, a bank teller. “I must tell my friends.”

“We’re not just about health,” Kalkurni adds, pulling out another brochure. “We also host citizenship classes.”

As the afternoon sun heats up, the outreach workers start going door to door at a dense two-story apartment building on South Kenmore Avenue, a complex filled with Bangladeshi families. They knock on every door. Only one person has heard of healthcare reform.

More than 6,000 immigrants from Bangladesh live in Los Angeles — a group that saw its population climb by 122% between 2000 to 2010, according to a new report from Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles.

“The best way to connect to as many people as possible is to host a workshop — and invite the ethnic press,” said Manimul Haque, a local travel agent and leader in the Bangladeshi community. As they sip ice water together, he promises to get the word out.

The goal for the outreach workers is to collect names and addresses of immigrants who are either unaware of the healthcare reform or don’t speak one of the languages offered in brochures and the Covered California website. From there, appointments will be scheduled to help residents sign up for insurance.

“People are thrilled. They ask: ‘Does that mean I can finally go to the doctor? What about my teeth?’ ” Kulkarni says.

“It doesn’t help if we refer them to an agency in Sacramento,” she says. “Who will speak their language there?”