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Hours Before Deadline, Latinos Line Up to Enroll

Key to Obamacare success, Latinos lined up for in-person help to sign up for health insurance before Monday's deadline.
Image: People purchase health insurance from an agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors in Miami.
Yudelmy Cataneda, Javier Suarez and Claudia Suarez, left to right, sit with Yosmay Valdivian an insurance agent from Sunshine Life and Health Advisors as they and others try to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act at a store setup in the Mall of Americas on March 20, 2014, in Miami, Fla. The owner of Sunshine Life and Health Advisors, Odalys Arevalo, said she has seen a surge in people, some waiting up to 3 hours or more in line, trying to sign up for the Affordable Care Act before the open enrollment period for individual insurance ends on March 31.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

WASHINGTON - The room was tight and every seat filled. The line to get in the front room at La Clínica del Pueblo had formed before the doors opened at 9 a.m. As the hours dragged on, there was shifting in seats and looks of boredom and tiredness. The lucky ones passed time with music and movies on their phones. Each person’s turn came slowly.

This was what it looked like on the last weekend to sign up for Obamacare. Some people had found the sign-up process daunting or didn't have Internet access. Others were part of families that didn’t all fit in the neat “American citizen” box. Others just needed that personal touch.

Those waiting for information on enrollment were the people the federal government wanted desperately to shop in insurance marketplaces for health insurance coverage. Latinos are among the groups most likely to be uninsured; many work in jobs that don’t provide it. A larger share are low-income compared to the rest of the population; many Hispanic families had decided to forgo insurance to balance their home budgets. But like everyone else, they faced Monday’s end of day deadline to have insurance or to have tried to get it, so here they are.

It hasn’t been easy to reach this population, though certainly attempts have been made. A Spanish-language site, late to start up and clunky in its verbiage, was created specifically to reach Latinos. Latino administration officials and Democratic lawmakers urged enrollment. Partnerships were formed with Spanish-speaking television to spread the word: Asegúrate. Grammy-award winner Marc Anthony exhorted his gente (people) to get covered via Twitter in Spanish and English.

But none of those efforts got Jose Reynaldo-Rivera to enroll for health insurance Saturday. That happened because his daughter, Ariel, was walking in the neighborhood when a woman passed her a flier mentioning the upcoming Obamacare deadline, the fine for missing it and the in-person enrollment help La Clínica was offering over the weekend.

“I haven’t had time because I work Monday through Friday and I don’t get home until 7 at night,” said Reynaldo-Rivera, 40, a building maintenance worker.

Reynaldo-Rivera had health insurance through his job, but his employer ended it in the economic downturn. He has been without insurance since then. Luckily he’s been healthy, but has had to pay full price at the pharmacist for medicines he’s needed, he said.

Ariel sat at his side, clicking through her mobile phone. The president has been fond of telling people their coverage could cost as much or less than a cell phone bill. The young woman had been covered by her mother’s D.C. Healthcare Alliance plan, an district government subsidized insurance program for people who do not qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, but have limited incomes. However, the plan does not extend to dependents once they reach 21.

Ariel said she knew about the deadline but didn’t know she could sign up for it at La Clínica until she got the flier and the woman who handed it to her explained the coverage to her. “I need insurance. I heard Obamacare was reasonable,” Ariel said.

The administration provided some $200 million to help community health centers get the word out, assist people with the application process and to train counselors for the work. La Clínica had nine in-person assistants on hand for the process for Saturday’s enrollment weekend and others the previous weekend.

There still are glitches. Not the computer sort that sent Obamacare into a frenzy late last year and that triggered congressional hearings and finger-pointing. These are the sort that come from infrastructure built around the common rather than uncommon.

“I need insurance. I heard Obamacare was reasonable."

Mauricio Fernandez, 22, couldn’t get signed up because the credit bureau used by the D.C. marketplace couldn’t verify his identity. Roland Gutierrez, the clinic staffer who helped him through the enrollment, said Fernandez had all the correct documents that verified his identity, but because Fernandez had no credit history, the system couldn’t identify him. But he would be able to finish his enrollment by mail, which Fernandez said is a relief “because I don’t want to have to pay the penalty.”

For Obamacare to work, enough young, healthy Americans like Fernandez need to sign up to offset the cost of older, more sick people. The median age of Latinos is 27, compared to 37 for the general population. About a fifth of the nation’s millennials are Hispanic and about two-thirds are U.S. born.

Community health clinics like La Clínica del Pueblo, nestled in the heart of D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, have been key in helping reach Latinos for enrollment. Like other community health clinics it is well established and well known in the neighborhood. It is a trusted site with a Spanish-speaking and Latino staff for health care and other services. For its part, La Clínica first contacted all of its regular patients to help them sign up for coverage if they didn’t have it, then began enrolling people who walked in to inquire and reaching out to draw people in.

La Clínica’s yellow and rose painted walls helped diminish the tedium Saturday. The staff also used the opportunity to give its health promotion pitch, reminding people of the need for exercise. To underscore it, Jackson San Miguel, a clinic staffer, punched play on his mini-stereo every couple of hours to lead the prospective Obamacare enrollees in a Zumba workout. The Latin rhythms had everyone out of their seat for the 10:30 a.m. workout. A little more than half the room was participating at 12:30 p.m. Reynaldo-Rivera was an enthusiastic participant.

What was missing was any political talk about the law that brought everyone to the clinic. A recent Pew Research Center analysis found a nearly equal share of Latinos approve and disapprove of the law, 47 percent. Yet 61 percent of Latinos agree with the statement that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure all Americans have health coverage.

All the political bickering about Obamacare really hasn’t been resonating with Juan Zeledon, 25, a computer networking student.

“All I know is I heard a lot of people complain about the whole Obamacare, but how does it affect me, I don’t know,” said Zeledon, who listened to music from his phone through his earbuds “I just know I needed medical insurance.”