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Citing poor customer service and struggles to enroll Latinos, California lawmakers on Tuesday introduced legislation to expand and alter the makeup of the state health insurance exchange's five-member board of directors.

"Accountability starts at the top," said Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona. "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 and members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus have been among the most vocal critics of Covered California's efforts to outreach to young people and Latinos.

Senate Bill 972 would expand the board to seven members and add four new types of experience to the list of expertise areas: Marketing of health insurance products, information technology system management, management information systems and consumer service delivery research and best practices.

Torres said board members must currently demonstrate command of only two of the following areas: Individual health care coverage, small employer health care coverage, health benefits plan administration, health care finance, administering a public or private health care delivery system and purchasing health plan coverage.

Currently serving on Covered California's board are: Chairwoman Diana Dooley, secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency; Kimberly Belshé, executive director of First 5 LA , health agency secretary under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and health department director under former Gov. Pete Wilson; Paul Fearer, a former vice president of UnionBanCal Corporation; Susan Kennedy, a former top aide to California Govs. Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis; and Dr. Robert Ross, president and chief executive for The California Endowment.

Fewer than 20 percent of the 400,000 customers who responded to a question about their ethnicity identified as Latino, Hispanic or Spanish over three months of enrollment through Dec. 31. Just 5.5 percent of customers, roughly 25,000 people, speak primarily Spanish. At the same time, the exchange was beset by technological problems and exceedingly long waits at its phone centers.

On Monday, Covered California announced plans to enhance its customer service by increasing staff at call centers by 350 by the end of next month, expanding its live webchat function and upgrading its Spanish-language webpages. The upgrades come in advance of an expected surge of enrollments ahead of the March 31 deadline. It also launched dedicated phone lines for certified enrollment counselors and will establish a dedicated support phone line for licensed certified insurance agents.

"We want Californians to know we hear them," said Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee. "We understand that some have been struggling with our current system, and we are committed to making sure that everyone who wants health care coverage can get the enrollment support they need, get their questions answered and get the coverage they deserve for themselves and their families."

Other co-authors of the bill include Democratic Sens. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens and Ben Hueso of San Diego and Republican Sens. Ted Gaines of Rocklin and Joel Anderson of La Mesa.

PHOTO Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, at her Capitol office last year. Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli



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