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California Reaches Out to Educate Latino Community on New Insurance Exchange

September 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
On the eve of open enrollment for insurance exchanges as part of the Affordable Care Act, the state of California is making a big push among Latinos, who make up a third of of the uninsured nationwide. Kwame Holman reports on the $60 million effort to educate and enroll Californians in the new health care program.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we heard earlier, even with a possible government shutdown looming tonight over the fate of the health care law, one thing won’t change: Money to implement the law has already been allocated.

And, tomorrow, the federal government and 16 states are poised to open new online insurance marketplaces.

One of the key groups being targeted for enrollment, Latinos, who make up a third of the uninsured nationwide.

Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hundreds of people, young and old, stood in line on a recent morning outside the Cesar Chavez Civic Center in Oakland, Calif.

The occasion was a health fair organized by community groups, and the mood was festive, as the largely Hispanic participants prepared to sign up for programs, including food stamps, get free medical screenings, and even free healthful food. But the biggest draw was the large area devoted to health insurance.

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WOMAN: What do you think are the chances for me to qualify?

WOMAN: It just depends on the income.

KWAME HOLMAN: Here, specially trained staff explained what type of insurance people would be eligible for under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which requires everyone to be insured.

Of the nation’s 53 million Latinos, about 10 million are uninsured, four million of them in California. There’s a big push to get them enrolled in the state’s new insurance exchange, Covered California. Lower-income residents may qualify for premium subsidies or be enrolled in Medicaid, known here as Medi-Cal. Undocumented individuals are not eligible.

WOMAN: You have some gum recession, so you want to take care of your gums.

KWAME HOLMAN: Erika Barnajas is just the kind of person the state is hoping will enroll. She’s a 37-year-old mother who doesn’t have health insurance. She came to the U.S. 16 years ago from Mexico. Her infant son, Abran, got his first dental exam at the health fair.

ERIKA BARNAJAS, uninsured: I don’t have insurance. It’s hard because, when I get really sick, sometimes, I don’t have money to pay a hundred dollars to go to a doctor.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ofelia Cisneros, 24, currently has insurance, but is concerned she will lose it. And like many there, she wanted to find out more about Obamacare.  

OFELIA CISNEROS, Calif.: I’m confused about how the whole program is going to work out, how you’re going to apply, how you’re going to get care. That’s everyone’s biggest question, like, is this really going to be affordable? Is this really going to work out?

KWAME HOLMAN: The event was sponsored by the California Endowment, the state’s largest private health promotion organization. It’s spending $60 million to educate Californians about Obamacare, much of that targeted at Latinos. The endowment is running an ad campaign on Spanish-language networks. This one features Dr. Ana Maria Polo, a popular personality on Telemundo.

DANIEL ZINGALE, California Endowment: Sixty percent of those who are eligible for Obamacare in California are Latino. So if Obamacare is going to succeed in California, it has to succeed among Latinos. We also believe, if Obamacare is going to succeed in the nation, it has to succeed in California.

KWAME HOLMAN: The outreach effort is being spearheaded by the California endowment’s Daniel Zingale. Zingale says one of the biggest tasks is combating fear.

DANIEL ZINGALE: Fear and anxiety among mixed immigration families about immigration and deportation is a major hurdle. You may have a parent who doesn’t yet have legal status, but is the parent of children who are here legally, born in the United States. So we want to get those children enrolled in Obamacare. We also need to assure people that the government won’t offer them health coverage assistance with the one hand and then deportation or immigration enforcement with the other.

KWAME HOLMAN: Zingale and his colleagues also are using the high profile of the new health care law as an opportunity to reach out to members of the state’s Latino community who don’t qualify for it, the undocumented.

The endowment is sending out a health promotion message via radio programs in California’s Central Valley, targeting a growing number of indigenous Mexican agricultural workers who speak only Mixteco and Triqui.

There are more than a million undocumented and uninsured Californians. It’s a population that traditionally hasn’t been able to access many health services, except in emergency rooms and community health clinics, such as this one in Hayward, California. The Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center serves 15,000 low-income patients a year. About 70 percent are Latino and a mix of undocumented and legal residents.

Patients now are greeted by a volunteer health promoter who explains their new insurance options.

DR. DEEPIKA JANNAPUREDDY, family practice physician: We are dealing with a lot of chronic problems, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and a lot of geriatric populations.

KWAME HOLMAN: Dr. Deepika Jannapureddy is a family practice physician who says the Affordable Care Act is going to improve the health of the community she serves.

DR. DEEPIKA JANNAPUREDDY, Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center: People who don’t have insurance, they may need to wait for the — like, if they need to go and have a colonoscopy done, if they need to go and see oncologist. But once they get insurance, we have more access to a lot of referral people. They can call the hospital, and they can come right away.

KWAME HOLMAN: But not everyone in the state is happy about the coming implementation of Obamacare. Harmeet Dhillon, vice chairman of the California Republican Party, opposes the health law, and says she’s concerned about how it will impact all residents.

HARMEET DHILLON, California Republican Party: It’s going to be the biggest tax and burden on American business in history. I think, across the board, people are feeling very uneasy and uncertain about it. That’s going to escalate rapidly on October 1 and thereafter, when people start to sign up, fill out these forms, and then a month later when they start to get the bills.

DANIEL ZINGALE: There’s no question that the toxic politics around Obamacare has kind of poisoned the air for this conversation. But one of the things we pride ourselves on here in California is, we’re very comfortable getting ahead of Washington, D.C. So they may be debating this for the next 100 years, as they have for the past 100 years, but our governor, our people here in California, we’re pretty clear that we’re moving forward.

KWAME HOLMAN: Thousands of specially trained health educators hired by the state have begun a door-to-door campaign throughout California, and much of that outreach is focused on reaching Latino communities, who may hold the key to the success of Obamacare in the nation’s biggest state.

GWEN IFILL: An important postscript to Kwame’s report. The Spanish-language version of the federal Web site for exchanges won’t be ready tomorrow. But the Obama administration says people will still be able to get help on the phone to enroll and Spanish-language guidance can be found on the English Web site. The Spanish-language website is expected to go online in mid-October. Individuals who want coverage beginning in January can enroll until mid-December.