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Despite Increased Enrollment, Online Spanish Sign-Up Faces Challenges

Veronica Zaragovia, KUT
Ovidio Jesus Garcia, left, gets help from Gigi Veliz at Foundation Communities' Insure Central Texas location at Highland Mall on Jan. 14, 2014.

Almost 120,000 Texans signed up for health insurance through the federally run marketplace through the end of last month, but it’s only a small fraction of the state’s total uninsured population.

And enrollment of Latinos, a group targeted by the Obama administration has had its challenges.

Ovidio Jesus Garcia recently got help figuring out how to enroll in a health insurance plan on the federally run marketplace.

Garcia, who does not speak English, moved to Austin as a refugee from Cuba last May. He, his wife and daughter had Refugee Medical Assistance for 8 months but it ran out days before his wife had a mammogram appointment this month.

"On the first of January they called from the hospital that our insurance was up and we couldn’t go to the appointment," Garcia says. "She needs to get that exam done."

He says he knew from Spanish-language TV and radio that he could get in-person help from certified application counselors to sign up for a plan – rather than just online. He says the Spanish-language federal marketplace website isn’t very good.

"The page has very little Spanish, because when it jumps to other pages it's in English," he says. "I don’t speak enough English to go on those pages and fill out the application. It was really helpful that I got help here. It enables me to get the coverage I need from health insurance."

He came to Foundation Communities’ Insure Central Texas location at Highland Mall. Gigi Veliz helped him sign up for a plan. He needs to come back – after he sets up a bank account. Then he can actually purchase the plan he chose.

Roughly 120,000 people in Texas have bought a plan on the marketplace through the end of last month, according the Health and Human Services Department.

"When you’re talking about that number of people who are uninsured, 120,000 is not making a big dent in that," says Sam Richardson, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas and an expert on health care. "In those terms, there’s a lot to be done still to cut down on the number of uninsured in the state. That being said, estimates from the Health and Human Services Commission say that, without expanding Medicaid, they expect that the uninsured rate in Texas will go down to about 15 percent from its current 25 percent."

Richardson says the success of the health care law won’t be based on just the raw numbers.

"It’s not as much an issue of how many people sign up but how healthy the people who sign up are," he says.

Richardson says more people are likely to sign up as tax season nears. That’s because of the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act – most people who are uninsured will pay a tax penalty for 2014.

Texas has roughly 6 million people who are uninsured. According to Census data, in 2012 almost 3.5 million uninsured Texans identified as Hispanic or Latino. Sal Valdez is an application counselor with the Latino Healthcare Forum, a group based in East Austin that aims to spread awareness about the health care law. He says the enrollment process is difficult for reasons beyond the woes with the websites healthcare.govand its Spanish-language version, For starters, he says many Latinos, especially elderly ones, lack an email address.

"Second is a lot of our Spanish speakers in our community aren’t necessarily ready with their documents when they show up for their own process," he says.

Valdez says the required background checks also take time.

"There’s other agencies involved in terms of cross checking statuses. And in that process, the over all process starts slowing down because it takes time. So we often get messages you have to wait 24 hours or 48 hours for confirmation."

Valdez says more people will start enrolling as they see relatives and friends getting insurance. And the Forum continues to do a lot of outreach.

"In terms of outreach, we’ve reached thousands. In terms of enrollment on the marketplace, that’s more limited. Several hundreds at various stages. In terms of complete enrollment where they’ve actually selected plans, I’d say there was maybe ourselves, if I counted 100 it’s a lot," he adds.

Foundation Communities, another local non-profit helping people sign up for health insurance, says 4,000 people have come to their centers. Of those, about 1,000 have purchased a plan so far. Open enrollment runs  until the end of March. 

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