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Covered California Hopes To Enroll More Latinos, But There's A Problem

Nov 18, 2014

Covered California executive director Peter Lee urges Fresno residents to sign up during the second open enrollment period, which started Saturday and runs through February 15.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

With the second open enrollment period of Covered California in full swing, state officials are boosting their efforts to reach out to Latinos. Yet, there are many people in the Central Valley who are living in the shadows when it comes to enrolling for health care.

Covered California officials say they're proud to have signed up 1.2 million people for health insurance during the first year. But Executive Director Peter Lee says there’s still some things they want to improve.

"Last year we did a pretty good job," Lee says. "At the same time we learned things we could do better. Couple of the biggest lessons are on the ground is critical."

This year, one of their biggest goals is signing up Latinos.

A new grant program has allowed more than 220 organizations to reach out to people in the Latino community and other ethnic groups including in places like Dinuba, a rural community southeast of Fresno.

But here, where so many Latinos lack healthcare, those outreach efforts are facing a big problem. Many of the people they're reaching can't sign up.

Just a day after Peter Lee spoke in Fresno, I joined enrollment counselors from Family HealthCare Network during one of their outreach efforts in downtown Dinuba.

During the four hours I was there, most of the conversations went something like this:

Counselor: Are you signed up in any health care plan?

Man: No.

Counselor: No. Why not?

Man: No, I haven’t applied.

Counselor: Are you a resident or a citizen?

Man: No, that’s the bad thing.

Counselor: None of the two? Well, that’s the problem.

Andres was one of those who didn't meet the requirements, meaning he couldn't sign up for health care. He agreed to talk on the condition that we do not use his last name.

"Thank god I haven’t had the need to go to a doctor," he says.

It's almost been six years since Andres visited a doctor back in Mexico. He works in the fields and says a medical check-up would be nice.

"I do have some pains, especially in my bones," he says. "I think I have a problem with my knees, it hurts when I work.  I take some pills but without a doctor's prescription."

Andres isn't the only one in that situation. Madel Comonfort was one of the counselors trying to get people enrolled.

"From the outcome that I’m getting from the community right now most of them are not legal residents or U.S. citizens," she says. "So it does make it a little bit difficult for them to be covered."

In order to enroll through Covered California, individuals must be either a legal resident or a U.S. citizen. This leaves the undocumented population with limited options.

Comonfort: "Some facilities offer sliding fee programs it just depends on whose available and what type of programs are out there for them."

Diana: "And some just end up in the emergency room?"

Comonfort: "Right, some just end up in the emergency room."

There were those who did benefit during the outreach effort. They were undocumented parents who needed help to enroll their U.S. born children. A recent report by the Pew Research Center estimates there's about 3.5 million unauthorized parents of U.S. born children who have lived in the United States for at least five years.

Certified enrollment counselors from Family HealthCare Network inform Dinuba residents about California's health insurance exchange.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

Estella Lopez visited the counselors to help with her kid's renewals. She says she's grateful because her children now have insurance for the very first time.

"It's been great," Lopez says. "My son's insurance covered his visit to check his eye vision and before I would have to pay cash for those services."

Local physician Mario Martinez says Latinos are a hard community to reach, even when they meet all the requirements.

"The Latino population has never been a population in general that has had great access to care in the past partly because of the work background or even their history of never really having any kind of healthcare," Martinez says.

And when it comes down to it. Many families living in the Central Valley, from different racial backgrounds, really have to think about how they're spending their money.

"With low-income families who struggle, [they] are down to the last $20 at the end of the month,” Martinez says. “And then you’re asking for another extra $40, $50, $100 to pay for health insurance it gets a little hard on the budget.”

Despite the obstacles of reaching out to these communities of color, state health officials say they're confident that this year's outreach efforts will pay off.