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Officials launch bus tour to promote California health insurance exchange

Peter V. Lee, executive director of Covered California, greets supporters during a news conference in Los Angeles on Sunday to announce the first day of open enrollment for the state-run health care insurance exchange. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The head of California’s health insurance exchange toured Los Angeles by bus Sunday, seeking to publicize the Affordable Care Act’s potential benefits among Southern Californians, many of them Latino, who officials say have failed to take advantage of the law.

On the first day of this year’s open-enrollment period for federally subsidized health plans, the tour’s first stop — in East L.A. at the nonprofit care provider AltaMed Health Services — previewed what state officials say will be an overarching strategy as they seek to boost enrollment in the third year of the state-run marketplace, called Covered California.

“Success for the Affordable Care Act is about success with the Latino community,” Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said in an interview before boarding the bus that would ferry him to other locations in East and South L.A. throughout the day. Lee said that more than 40% of uninsured state residents eligible for subsidies are likely to be Latino. 

State officials say they are focused this fall on the estimated 750,000 people who are eligible for Covered California subsidies but have not signed up for coverage.

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That figure does not include 1.4 million uninsured Californians eligible for health insurance under Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor, or an additional 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who have no health insurance but are ineligible for state or federal programs.

Last year, the state insurance marketplace failed to reach its goal of enrolling 1.7 million residents. Of the 1.3 million current members of Covered California, nine in 10 receive some form of financial assistance. About 200,000 enrollees pay less than $50 each month thanks to subsidies.

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Lee said the exchange expects to add between 295,000 and 450,000 new members this year.

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In opting to set up its own insurance marketplace, California managed to avoid some of the worst technological glitches that plagued the rollout of the federal healthcare exchange in 2013. But the state’s program has faced its own problems, among them preparation for pitching the law’s expanded access to healthcare in neighborhoods like those surrounding the site just east of the 710 Freeway where Lee appeared Sunday.

AltaMed Chief Executive Castulo de la Rocha said a shortage of bilingual outreach workers hamstrung efforts to enroll Southern Californians the past two years. This fall, he said, he thinks that problem has been largely solved and that awareness of Covered California has spread among Latinos through Spanish-language media and friends or family members who have already signed up for insurance.

“Word of mouth is the most important,” he said.

East L.A. resident Olivia Guzman, 42, was among those who showed up at Sunday’s event on Whittier Boulevard, where AltaMed officials had opened two offices to help people enroll for health insurance. Guzman said she had lived in the U.S. for 22 years without health insurance.

After finally receiving a green card in June, she said, she was eager to find a health plan for herself and her teenage son.

Guzman, who said she works in a shoe store, said officials at AltaMed told her she might qualify for a plan that cost $87 per month.

“To be honest, this is the first time I hear about Obamacare,” she said, referring to the law by its common nickname. “It’s super cheap.”

Several elected officials also attended the event, including state Rep. Jimmy Gomez, state Sen. Ed Hernandez and U.S. Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Lucille Roybal-Allard.

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