CHICAGO — Add one more delay to the list for the rollout of President Barack Obama's health care law. This time, it's a postponement of the launch of online enrollment tools in Spanish.
The Spanish version of HealthCare.gov now provides basic information, but still doesn't allow users to apply for insurance coverage online. U.S. Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters told The Associated Press on Tuesday the administration plans a quiet launch of the Spanish enrollment tools in early December without much advertising.
That leaves Spanish speakers getting help by phone from bilingual call center operators or in person from bilingual enrollment counselors while they wait for an online option. An estimated 10.2 million uninsured Latinos may be eligible for coverage through the marketplace. Most of them speak English or are bilingual, but 3.7 million rely on Spanish.
As recently as last week, the administration had told journalists the Spanish sign-up tools would be ready by the end of November. Hispanic groups had heard the same thing.
Those groups have shouldered much of the burden of answering questions from Spanish speakers, hiring additional staff to answer phones and taking calls on Spanish language radio shows.
"We want the English language Web page to be up and running and to be successful. Once we have that, then we want the Spanish language one to be up and running," said Jane Delgado of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. "People are frustrated when they can't complete enrollment."
But the administration was worried that launching the Spanish sign-ups would make the problems with the troubled HealthCare.gov website worse. The administration has pledged to get the site working for the vast majority of users by the end of this month. The December launch will allow Hispanic groups to give their thoughts on how the Spanish tools are working.
"We think it's important to engage with key stakeholders and organizations in this process and get their feedback," Peters, the HHS spokeswoman, said. After the Spanish enrollment tools launch and Hispanic groups provide feedback, "We will ramp up our promotional efforts to drive Spanish speakers to CuidadoDeSalud.gov," the Spanish version of HealthCare.gov.
Enrollment in the new health insurance marketplace is open until March 31. People who sign up by Dec. 23 can get coverage that starts on Jan. 1.
In Chicago, Luvia Quinones of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said Spanish speakers need in-person help from bilingual enrollment counselors more than a website in Spanish.
"They don't need the Spanish version to be up and running," Quinones said. It's more important, she said, that they are able to sit side by side with someone who can answer their questions in Spanish and help them enroll.
Hispanics are viewed as one of keys to the success of Obama's coverage expansion. It's not just that there's a need for health insurance among Latinos, but their relative youthfulness is seen as a plus for the law's new markets.
About 30 percent of Latinos are uninsured, the highest rate of any ethnic group. But with a median age of 27, they are younger than the U.S. population as a whole.
They are heavily represented in major states that the administration is targeting for enrollments, including California, Texas and Florida. And they're overwhelmingly likely to qualify for tax credits that would help make premiums more affordable.
The administration's own marketing study found that Hispanics account for about 1 in 5 of the healthy and young, the health care overhaul's most desirable demographic. Overall, the healthy and young represent about half the nation's uninsured. They take health for granted, are sensitive to costs, and they have low motivation to enroll. But they're less expensive to insure, and their premiums can help offset the cost of care for older, sicker people.
The goal of the Spanish version of the website was to provide an easy enrollment capability for the 17 percent of Latinos who prefer to use Spanish. As it turned out, the English-language website sputtered. But the Spanish version didn't even get off the ground.
Prior to the Oct. 1 launch of HealthCare.gov, the administration had announced it was postponing Spanish-language sign-ups and other desirable features in an effort to focus on core functions. Although that strategy ultimately did not work, officials said they would not lose sight of having a Spanish-language capability as the underlying English website was repaired.
People who live in the United States illegally aren't eligible for coverage under the law, but they must enroll any children born here or face a tax penalty. Quinones said it's a common fear among mixed status families that signing up their children for insurance will prompt an unwelcome visit from immigration authorities.
Last month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it would not use health insurance enrollment information for enforcement.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington contributed to this report.
First published November 26 2013, 1:51 PM