States Face Language Barriers To Health Exchange Sign Up

Polling shows that many Americans aren't quite sure how the Affordable Care Act will affect them, and it may be even more confusing for immigrants and people who don't speak English as their first language. Illinois has a large immigrant population, and the state has been working to resolve language barriers as it gets ready to launch its insurance marketplace.

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For millions of uninsured people, Tuesday is a big day. That's when they can start signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. But for people who speak little or no English, it may be a difficult process. Illinois, which has one of the country's largest immigrant populations, is working to make sure that language is not a barrier to enroll in. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Chicago's Alivio Medical Center serves a largely Mexican and Mexican-American population. Earlier this week, doctors, nurses and office staff filled the lobby of one of the center's clinics as Susan Vega began to clarify the intricacies of the Affordable Care Act.

SUSAN VEGA: For our community especially, there are a couple of things. (Foreign language spoken).

CORLEY: Vega, Alivio's enrollment outreach manager, explained how anyone who lives in the United States legally and has a Social Security number can participate in the new insurance marketplaces opening next Tuesday. Across the country, millions of uninsured Latinos will be eligible for coverage. There's nearly 500,000 in Illinois. And Vega says for those who don't speak English, it will be a high learning curve.

VEGA: But we have some experience with taking the jargon and the wonk and making it more understandable, simple, in saying (foreign language spoken). So you go here to get that.

CORLEY: The federal government has a website that offers information in several languages and a toll-free hotline. Like many other states, Illinois has been racing to train so-called navigators and counselors to help the uninsured when the state unveils the details of its new Get Covered Illinois insurance program in full next week.

STEPHANIE ALTMAN: We have materials for you translated into Spanish, Mandarin, Polish.

CORLEY: Training materials in 10 languages total, trainer Stephanie Altman says the website Illinois Health Matters is a research repository, with all sorts of foreign language tools for navigators to use. For languages not represented, the state has already started working with those community groups.

ALTMAN: And we have been targeting, working with the Laotian population in Elgin. It is the largest Laotian population in Illinois.

CORLEY: One of the challenges the navigators will face is explaining how even the concept of insurance works to people who've never had insurance before. That's discussed during the workshop sessions. Aknishka Kubiak(ph) works at a community health clinic.

AKNISHKA KUBIAK: I'm hoping the resources page is going to be very helpful with the Polish language because I am not able always on the spot to translate certain words and certain concepts that are also new for me. I'm learning them right now.

CORLEY: Einha Ho(ph) works with Vietnamese residents and French-speaking Congolese refugees in central Illinois. She says her organization is designing its own handouts to distribute.

EINHA HO: Website, you know, is going to be complicated for those who don't have access to computers who are not so well-educated. So we have to come out with a diagram, you know, visuals. We work better with visuals.

CORLEY: Illinois also has a marketing strategy targeting Spanish, English and Polish speakers with additional languages, including Chinese, to come later. At a press conference this week, Salvador Cerna(ph), a regional outreach coordinator for the state's health insurance marketplace, says groups can also just contact the state's outreach office.

SALVADOR CERNA: And then we will be able to bring, in their own language, people to give a presentation to tell them how to enroll, to tell them what the qualifications are. We are carrying out a full-fledged campaign to inform, educate and enroll people.

CORLEY: Illinois expects to still be training navigators after October 1 to reach a total workforce of 1,200. The outreach office says it hopes that means it will help the uninsured, whatever language they speak. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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