Selling Health Care To California's Latinos Got Lost In Translation : Shots - Health News Certain sales strategies work well with American Latinos. California's insurance exchange didn't try any of them when advertising coverage with the Affordable Care Act.
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Selling Health Care To California's Latinos Got Lost In Translation

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Selling Health Care To California's Latinos Got Lost In Translation

Selling Health Care To California's Latinos Got Lost In Translation

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The clock is ticking on the Affordable Care Act. With less than a month to sign up for coverage through the new insurance exchanges, advocacy groups, insurers, and state and federal officials are ramping up efforts to fill the gaps. One population where enrollment still lags: Latinos.

Later today, President Obama will make an appeal to Latinos in a town hall meeting, which will be broadcast by major Spanish-language media outlets. The challenge is a particular problem in California. Its insurance exchange, Covered California, has been hailed as one of the more successful rollouts of Obamacare. But it has not worked so well with Latinos.

As April Dembosky of member station KQED tells us, marketing missteps have been part of the problem.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: The advertising industry figured out how to woo Hispanic consumers decades ago. They found a way to translate the appeal of American products to a different culture.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Hey, McNuggets. Me encanta...

DEMBOSKY: Yet last year, when California officials started thinking about how to persuade the state's Latinos to buy health care plans, they made a series of basic marketing mistakes.

Here's an example. One thing health policy experts love about Obamacare is that you can't be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition. Covered California made this a selling point in almost all its Spanish ads.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish spoken)

DEMBOSKY: But that message doesn't resonate with Latinos. Nearly 60 percent of the state's uninsured are Latino. And many of them have never had insurance, never considered it. So few have ever worried about pre-existing conditions. Another problem is that the ads end with a Web address for Covered California.



DEMBOSKY: Bessie Ramirez is from the Hispanic market research group Santiago Solutions, near Los Angeles. She says failing to include a phone number, or a physical address, completely misses how Hispanics like to shop.

BESSIE RAMIREZ: Hispanics are very heavily on the Internet, and they're growing very fast on the Internet. However, they're not transacting on the Internet. They transact on a personal basis. Hispanics will wait to go to a 7-11 until 11 o'clock because at 11 o'clock, they know that Juan is on duty.

DEMBOSKY: Perhaps Covered California's biggest mistake: They simply translated ads from English into Spanish. They ignored the importance of cultural relevance. Think of this long-running, English-language ad.



DEMBOSKY: At worst, a literal translation of this catchphrase into Spanish could be a rude reference to breast milk. At best, it just falls flat. That's what happened with Covered California's first Spanish ad.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Bienvenidos.


DEMBOSKY: Roberto Orci and I are in his office, watching this ad. Orci is the CEO of Acento Advertising, in Santa Monica.


ROBERT ORCI: (Translating) Come on in. Welcome to a new state of health. Welcome to Covered California.

To say that we are in a new state of health for California, it is grammatically correct to translate that literally, but it doesn't have the same - the little nuance or cuteness that it has in English.

DEMBOSKY: He says a follow-up ad was just boring.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Spanish spoken)

DEMBOSKY: Boring music, boring spokesperson.

ORCI: This guy was as stiff as a board and seco - which in English, means dry.

DEMBOSKY: It might not matter to anyone but the companies, if Latinos buy more milk or chicken nuggets. But if Latinos don't buy health insurance, it matters to everyone. On average, Latinos are younger and healthier than the general population. The premiums they pay help cover the health care costs of older, sicker Californians. And that keeps premium costs down for everyone else.

That's why Covered California is sweating the numbers. Just 6 percent of people who enrolled in health plans last year speak Spanish as their first language. The state was hoping for as much as five times that.

PETER LEE: We don't think we've done a good enough job yet.

DEMBOSKY: Peter Lee is the executive director of Covered California. He says the state plans to spend more than $8 million on a brand-new campaign. This time, the ads will tell people where they can get help face to face.

LEE: Even from day one, we all thought that Spanish speakers would be much more apt to have help in-person. How important that is, is really crystallized over the last three months.

DEMBOSKY: It's not clear if there's enough time for the new campaign to make a difference. The final deadline to sign up for coverage this year is just weeks away.

For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Francisco.

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