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December 23, 2013
Viewpoints: Covered California needs plan to reach out to Latinos

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(Dec. 23 — By Norma J. Torres, Special to The Bee)

Whether health insurance offered through Covered California will remain affordable largely depends on Latinos enrolling. Yet several weeks after launching its outreach and enrollment campaign, it is clear Covered California's efforts are not working in the Latino community. The organization's executive director, Peter Lee, stated publicly last week it is having a difficult time reaching Latinos.

Lee deserves credit for acknowledging there is a problem. Now he and his organization must aggressively act to come up with a culturally competent solution. The affordability of health insurance for every Californian shopping for coverage depends on it.

If Covered California fails to come up with a successful plan before open enrollment ends March 31, 2014, the promise of affordable care for many Californians will be at risk. Furthermore, the organization would likely face economic and political obstacles that could threaten its long-term sustainability.

First, it will be economically challenging for Covered California to offer affordable rates in the future if more Latinos do not enroll. Because it is a health-insurance marketplace, companies providing coverage through it need a balance of healthy people to outweigh more costly sick and older people who require more care.

Latinos are the youngest and healthiest demographic and make up about half of the market's target enrollees, according to the latest California Simulation of Insurance Markets data. Therefore, the economics of the exchange do not work in anyone's favor if more Latinos aren't enrolling.

Second, on the political front, Covered California could lose key Latino community supporters if their value is taken for granted and their questions are ignored. For example, basic questions such as when paper applications will be available in Spanish, when the Spanish online enrollment page will be active, and when more bilingual enrollment counselors will be certified, have received ambiguous responses rather than specific details. Covered California insists that information will soon be translated. However, simply translating information is not evidence that a culturally competent outreach and enrollment plan is in place.

To inspire greater confidence, Covered California should seek help from and make better use of Latino opinion leaders, community organizations and media. It should make thoughtful decisions regarding who can help fix the current situation with the goal of developing a plan that explains specifically how it will increase enrollment numbers from this important demographic.

As Covered California begins to correct itself on Latino strategy, it should not repeat its past mistakes. One plausible explanation for why it has this problem is that none of its appointed board members, senior executive staff or lead contractors has proven cultural and linguistic competence and experience mobilizing the Latino community. With evidence demonstrating that the current plan is not succeeding, Covered California must identify and immediately bring to the table real Spanish-language marketing and outreach experts who can provide effective strategies for reaching Latino consumers.

It must demonstrate it is aggressively working to solve the problem that threatens the affordability of health insurance for all Californians who are depending on it for coverage. Therefore, it should immediately adjust its Latino strategy and outreach team and dedicate significant time presenting details of a revised plan at its next board meeting Jan. 23.

Members of California's Legislative Latino Caucus have offered to help the organization improve its plan. We cannot allow the promise of the Affordable Care Act to go unmet because Covered California's leadership is struggling to effectively communicate with a critical subset of the market. We cannot continue to stand by and wait while being told the problem is being taken care of when it has clearly not been taken care of.

The time for talk is over. For the sake of all consumers, Covered California's New Year's resolution should be to seek better help and immediately take more serious action to improve Latino enrollment.

State Sen. Norma J. Torres, D-Pomona, serves on the Senate Insurance Committee



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