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August 20, 2013
Field Poll: California voters in the dark on state health exchange

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(August 20 -- By David Siders,

Less than two months before California's health insurance exchange opens for enrollment under the federal health care overhaul, three-quarters of voters under age 65 say they've heard little or nothing about the exchange, according to a new Field Poll.

Only 6 percent of registered voters under 65 say they have heard a lot about the exchange, and many people who are eligible for benefits don't know it.

The demographic is significant to the exchange, Covered California, because it includes people who are not yet eligible for Medicare and because the exchange's success relies on broad participation, especially among young, relatively healthy adults.

"These are people who are not tuned in," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. "So that's the task, that's the challenge."

The poll, sponsored by the nonprofit California Wellness Foundation, comes as the state prepares for major changes under the federal health care law next year, including state insurance marketplaces and a mandate that nearly all Americans carry health insurance or pay a penalty.

Yet as Oregon, Nevada and other states have began marketing campaigns to promote their exchanges, California had largely held off, electing to push forward with a multi-million outreach and marketing campaign closer to when enrollment opens Oct. 1.

Covered California expects about 2.3 million Californians to enroll in a health plan through the exchange by 2017.

Larry Hicks, a spokesman for Covered California, said the exchange will begin its advertising campaign in early September.

"A full-scale effort is still to come," he said.

According to the Field Poll, just 25 percent of voters age 18 to 64 say they have heard some or a lot about Covered California. About one-third of voters in that age group say they have heard only a little and 42 percent of voters say they have heard nothing at all.

Among moderate-income voters who are uninsured and eligible for tax credits to reduce the cost of health insurance, only 33 percent are aware of their eligibility.

In addition to the insurance exchange, the state is preparing to expand Medi-Cal coverage to more than 1.6 million low-income Californians by 2015 under the federal law.

Of low-income Californians who lack insurance but are eligible to receive Medi-Cal under the expanded program, only 48 percent say they know of their eligibility, according to the poll.

Lori Guerrero, a 55-year-old from Modesto, said she will look into subsidized coverage. The unemployed Republican said she has diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease but cannot afford insurance.

"I just watch what I eat and try to get a lot of exercise," she said.

When the exchange opens, Guerrero said, "I'm hoping there will be something for me."

Despite voters' lack of knowledge of Covered California, interest in learning more about the exchange is high. Sixty-five percent of voters under age 65 say they are at least somewhat interested in learning more.

Of registered voters who are under 65 and currently uninsured, 83 percent are interested in learning more about the exchange.

That level of receptiveness is the "good news," DiCamillo said, "but the outreach campaign has a huge undertaking before it."

About two-thirds of California voters think the state will be at least somewhat successful in its implementation of the federal health care overhaul, according to the poll. Democrats are overwhelmingly optimistic, while a majority of Republicans say implementation of the law will be not too successful or not successful at all.

A majority of voters think the law will encourage more low- and moderate-income residents to get health care coverage and provide consumers with more health insurance choices, according to the poll.

On the other hand, 59 percent of registered voters think California will not have enough primary care physicians to meet expanding need, according to the poll.

Dorothea Williams, a Democrat from Fresno, said she has insurance but hopes to find better coverage under changes to the health care law next year.

The 55-year-old homemaker said she knows about the law and its implications.

Other Californians don't, she said, because "they don't like to read."

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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