Language Remains A Barrier In Latino Health Care Enrollment

As the Obama administration touts an increasing number of people signing up under the Affordable Care Act, there's a push to get Latinos enrolled. This demographic represents the most underinsured group in the country. Politics around Obamacare and Latinos are heating up, with a new ad attacking the ACA and a Latino congressman who supports the measure.

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At the end of December, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius said that more than two million people had signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, but she didn't reveal information about their ethnicity. Supporters of the law say that Latino enrollment is vital to its success. Latinos are the most uninsured racial or ethnic group in the country and the obstacles to their enrollment remain high.

As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports from Chicago, the battle to get Latinos on board is heating up.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Early in the morning there is a steady stream of people coming into the Erie Family Health Center on Chicago's West side.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken) Obamacare?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

CORLEY: Two Saturdays a month, the health center runs an Obamacare health fair at one of its 12 community-based clinics in the Chicago region.

ILIANA MORA: At the very beginning, people were just trying to wrap their brains around and understand everything around the health coverage.

CORLEY: Iliana Mora is Erie's chief operating officer.

MORA: Now we have really been very busy enrolling folks in the marketplace or Medicaid expansion.

CORLEY: More than 10 million uninsured Latinos, citizens and legal residents, are eligible for health coverage. Myra Alvarez, who heads the federal government's Office of Minority Health, says some may be reluctant to sign up for Obamacare if they are related to someone who is undocumented.

MYRA ALVAREZ: Immigration and Customs Enforcement put out an official statement on this, that people who put forth their information on Healthcare.gov that that information will not be used for immigration enforcement purposes.

CORLEY: For those who speak little or no English, language is one of the biggest barriers. And states like Illinois have released ads in Spanish urging people to enroll.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

CORLEY: All Illinois residents, the ad says, now have equal access to health care.

The biggest push however comes at outreach events promoting Obamacare. Dr. Lee Francis, the CEO of Erie Health Center, says it's important for organizations that people trust to provide information in languages they understand. Francis says that's why navigators - the people trained to help individuals walk through the enrollment process - are so critical.

DR. LEE FRANCIS: This is not go online, buy a pair of shoes and it comes to your house. It's personal information. It's complicated and it requires a personal touch.

CORLEY: At the health fair, workers quickly prescreen applicants so they can meet with a navigator.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken) No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: No?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: OK.

CORLEY: Many here say they came to the health fair because they knew they'd get information in Spanish. And even fluent English speakers, like Alexandra Gonzalez, say the navigators are key.

ALEXANDRA GONZALEZ: The marketplace is just so mind-boggling that, honestly I'd rather have like Miguel, right now, do the work for me. At least I feel he knows what he's doing.

CORLEY: Gonzalez said she did try to go on the healthcare website herself.

GONZALEZ: I did. What a joke.

CORLEY: She says the technical problems that affected everyone left her frustrated, too. The Spanish-language version of the website launched last month after a delay and critics say it's full of glitches, too. They cite clunky translations and grammatical errors. However, Myra Alvarez says the website is working and people are using it.

ALVAREZ: But I will admit that sometimes, as with any website or any product, there are - there may be typos, there may be errors. And when we become aware of them, and we make sure that they are errors, we work as quickly as possible to get them corrected.

CORLEY: Muddying the water in the effort to recruit Latinos are advocacy groups. Conservatives who want the Affordable Care Act to fail are targeting it with ads like this one in Florida that features a Latino physician.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: This law does not put patients first. My patients ask if I will continue to provide care for them. And it pains me to say I don't have an answer...

CORLEY: The ad also asks Democratic Florida Congressman Joe Garcia why he supports Obamacare. It's a product of the LIBRE Initiative. Executive Director Daniel Garza says the ad is a way to drive a conversation in the Hispanic community, about what he says is the negative impacts of the law. And...

DANIEL GARZA: Basically holding elected leaders who are still in support of this law accountable and say, you know, when you're propping up here is a bad system that gives bureaucrats more power; that it actually lessens the quality of care.

CORLEY: Luis Torres, with the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, says his organization is aggressively working to enroll people. Torres says lots of misinformation about the coverage makes it difficult to engage people and to get them signed up.

LUIS TORRES: And I want to just frame the conversation in terms of the actual problem, which is that we have 10.2 million Latinos who are not covered, who do not have any type of health insurance, who are one medical emergency away from being bankrupt.

CORLEY: That's an argument LULAC and other supporters will continue to push until March 31st, the deadline to obtain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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