After Obama's TV Plea, Will Latinos Enroll in Obamacare?

Image: A man is silhouetted behind a sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event hosted by Planned Parenthood for the Latino community in Los Angeles, California

A man is silhouetted behind a sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event hosted by Planned Parenthood for the Latino community in Los Angeles, California September 28, 2013. With weeks to go before the March 31, 2014 enrollment deadline, the Administration and community groups have been reaching out to enroll more Latinos. JONATHAN ALCORN / Reuters

Signing up Latinos for health care has been a bumpy enterprise. With less than stellar enrollment for health coverage and just 3½ weeks before the signup deadline, everything is being tried to get Latinos’ attention.

President Barack Obama decided to appeal directly to Latinos via a live-streamed town hall this week that was to be broadcast on Spanish-language television networks Saturday, including on Telemundo, at 8 p.m. EST.

"If you get in an accident or get sick, then the cost of health care without health insurance is so high that either you may not be able to get the treatment you need, or it could end up bankrupting you, losing your home, everything you have, all your savings," Obama warned.

Groups working to draw in Hispanics said Spanish-language television has been a big help with getting the word out and explaining a complicated and in many cases foreign subject.

"Television is one of the biggest influences for Latinos. Telemundo, Univision and ImpreMedia have a big following," said Declan Kingland, health programs coordinator at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). ImpreMedia is a Spanish-language publishing company that produces La Opinión among other publications.

Although many Latinos have coverage through employers, the administration estimates about 10.2 million of the 53 million Latinos in the U.S. will be eligible to register for coverage through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Latinos are about one-third of the uninsured in the country and many of those who are eligible not only speak Spanish, but have never used health insurance.

"One of the challenges for a number of people in the community is this is their first time for this thing called insurance. That's taking time to understand. What is a premium? What is cost sharing? If I have insurance, how do I use it? That's adding more time to the process because people are wanting to know what they are signing up for," said Steven Lopez, senior health policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Getting Latinos to sign up also will be helped by the president's adamant statement on the town hall that the personal information Latinos provide to sign up for health care coverage won't be given to immigration officials who can then use it to deport people illegally in the United States, Lopez and others said. Although undocumented immigrants are not eligible for coverage, many Hispanics who are eligible have family members who are not here legally. Some 5.5 million U.S. children, many of them Latino, have at least one undocumented parent.

"For everybody out there who is in a mixed family, there's no sharing of the data from the health care plan into immigration services. You should feel confident that if someone in your family is eligible, you should sign them up," Obama said at the town hall.

Community college student Thalia Garcia, 21, said it was at the urging of her grandmother that she went to a service center operated by Insure Central Texas in Austin to sign up for coverage, which she ultimately was not eligible to get; instead she may qualify for a county subsidized health plan. "I'm pretty sure she watched Univision," Garcia said of her grandmother.

But television often has to be followed by one-on-one contact, according to experience thus far of those out working on the enrollments.

Nora Cadena, spokeswoman for Insure Central Texas, said many of the Latinos who stop by a service center at a mall in Austin have seen information about the health care coverage on one of the Spanish-language stations. They have also heard about it through networks of grandmothers, comadres (godmothers or close friends), mothers and others, who insist younger people go find out the information for themselves. Sometimes, young people are asked to go so they can inform the rest of the family, Cadena said.

Cadena said there has been a steady stream of applicants, in part because the mall is used by many Latinos and because ongoing construction work has brought in Latino workers. She recently said there has been an upsurge in young people under 24. Her service center provides many other services, such as free tax services for people who earn less than $50,000 as well as voter registration. In mid-February, Insure Central Texas had about 5,100 visits and had enrolled 1,391 people.

LULAC and NCLR are holding enrollment summits as part of a coalition of groups which include Planned Parenthood. Vanessa Gonzalez-Plumhoff, director of Latino leadership and engagement at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said her group has held 15 events under the coalition's banner and aid probably with about 5,500 attendees. Numbers of people who actually have signed up were not immediately available from the groups. Some attendees at the enrollment gatherings go home with the information and sign up later. There also are door-to-door campaigns.

California is something of a bell weather for Latino participation. The high Latino population state is running its own marketplace. On Friday, Covered California, the name of the state’s health insurance marketplace, announced civil rights activist and union organizer Dolores Huerta would help try to persuade Latinos to get health care coverage before the end of the month deadline, which coincidentally is Cesar Chavez Day in California. Huerta helped found United Farm Workers with Chavez, a hero among many Latinos. Huerta is appearing in videos and doing radio spots in the final month push.

As of Jan. 31, Covered California had enrolled just 20 percent of the 265,000 Latinos it hoped to enroll by the end of March. But the state was seeing a continual climb in enrollment. Covered California also intensified its face-to-face efforts, said Anne Gonzales, a spokeswoman for Covered California.

"That means adding to our bilingual workforce in the areas of enrollment counselors and agents. We also recently augmented our numbers of bilingual Service Center representatives, and made improvements to the Spanish-language online enrollment website," she said.

She said the president's town hall was valuable in educating Latinos about the benefits of coverage, and reinforced Covered California's message to Latinos. "We believe that Obama partnering with well-known personalities in Spanish-speaking media will resonate with Latinos nationwide," Gonzales said.

Republicans, who have tried 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, doubt the president's town hall will change the slow going in signing up Latinos.

"This is more than just a sloppy Spanish website; it's about a misguided health care policy that is hurting Latino families, workers and small business owners," said Izzy Santa, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.