Covered California, Redoubling Latino Enrollment Efforts

Covered California will “double-down” on its strategy to reach out to uninsured Latinos during a new enrollment period for health care under the state-run insurance exchange, the group’s top executive said Monday.

Speaking to The Herald before making a brief stop at Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, executive director Peter Lee said Covered California did a “pretty good job” of signing up Latinos, the state’s largest uninsured population, during the initial six-month enrollment period that ended in March. Lee said the agency would redouble efforts to convince Latinos to sign up for health insurance, many for the first time.

“Many Latinos have never had insurance before,” Lee said. “We need to work on dispelling the myth that insurance is not affordable. In-person assistance will be vital.”

In the midst of a 21-city bus tour to tout a new enrollment period that started last weekend and continues through Feb. 15, Lee said the focus will continue to be on one-on-one counseling and enrollment assistance, particularly in heavily Latino communities such as Salinas and others in Monterey County.

Covered California has been lauded as a national model for implementation of the Affordable Care Act, after recording about 1.2 million paid enrollees through the state exchange and adding about 2.2 million new Medi-Cal enrollees through the federally funded expansion of the program. The efforts cut the number of California’s uninsured in half.

In Monterey County, a total of 16,523 people purchased health insurance through the exchange, according to Covered California, while county social services director Elliott Robinson reported a 40,000-enrollee increase in Medi-Cal over the past year.

Despite the success, Covered California was still criticized for falling short on enrolling Latinos.

Lee acknowledged that only about 31 percent of health exchange enrollees were Latino, lower than the group’s share of the state’s population and well short of those eligible for coverage, estimated at 46 percent. Latinos with limited English proficiency were even less likely to have signed up so far, making Spanish-language outreach essential.

According to Lee, Covered California is facing an even greater challenge getting people to sign up during the new enrollment period – the state’s remaining uninsured have about half as much time to enroll, and a large number of the estimated 3.2 million remaining uninsured have never had insurance or have gone a long time without coverage and have developed a “culture of coping.” And many of the newly insured have never experienced the renewal process, increasing the risk they may drop coverage.

Meanwhile, Lee acknowledged that Monterey County is “one of very few areas in the state” where the exchange offers just a single insurance provider – Anthem Blue Cross – for 2015 after Health Net decided to only offer out-of-network coverage, meaning a narrower health care provider network and less choice for locals. Lee said Monterey County has historically been a “very challenging area” for insurance providers to reach contract agreements with local physicians.

Lee said Covered California still does not plan to offer online directories of health care providers, including hospitals, clinics and doctors, and will only offer links to the insurance companies’ own website directories. Covered California has been working with insurance companies on the exchange to improve provider directories, after criticism that directories on the Covered California website were inaccurate, he said.

While Lee said the exchange must balance affordability and provider choice, he added that health insurance coverage is “not just an insurance card, but access to care.”

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