According to the Pew Research Center, more than 37 million Americans speak Spanish at home – and although more than half of these Spanish speakers can also converse “very well” in English, many cannot. Research indicates that as many as 10 percent of Spanish speakers residing in the U.S. do not speak English well, and even more would consider themselves conversational but not proficient. Having basic English skills may be enough to work a job, raise a family and read the newspaper, but a lack of English language proficiency may prove difficult for Spanish speakers trying to understand health insurance, and get on top of Affordable Care Act regulations.
In California, nearly 40 percent of residents are of Latino heritage, and in some areas the density of Mexican and South American inhabitants is even greater. California has the highest population of Spanish speakers in the country, which might explain why the state is at the forefront of attempts to get Obamacare coverage to non-English speakers. Although all Americans are required to hold health insurance by March 31, 2014, research indicates that Latino Americans especially are lagging behind in meeting this deadline: many are employed at a job that doesn’t currently offer insurance, and at the same time, language barriers may prevent them from purchasing an individual plan on their state’s health insurance marketplace.
At the beginning of January, Kaiser Health News reported the story of California resident Elizabeth Gonzalez, a woman interested in using the California insurance marketplace to buy a new coverage policy. Although Gonzalez was born in the United States she had been raised in Mexico, and was therefore more comfortable shopping for insurance in Spanish. She found it difficult to access customer service and other Affordable Care Act information in Spanish: whereas confident English speakers can receive assistance from an insurance ‘navigator,’ who will walk them through the requirements and costs of purchasing a new insurance policy, Spanish-speaking navigators are less common and may be more difficult to contact over the phone.
Eventually, Gonzalez found assistance at the Ravenswood Family Health Center; a clinic where she could talk to an insurance enrollment counselor in person, in Spanish, to help decide what insurance plan she should buy and what government subsidies she might be eligible to receive. Latino advocates say that centers like Ravenswood are important in reaching out to the non-English speaking community, some of whom cannot afford internet access at home and would prefer to meet with an insurance advisor in person.
Meeting an insurance counselor in person can also appeal to Latino Americans who might be wary of sharing personal details online. At least one Ravenswood client told Kaiser News that she was nervous about signing up to Obamacare over the internet for fear that it might be a scam – and other older Latinos who are not confident in their English skills and also not computer proficient (or do not have a computer at home) may feel the same. It doesn’t help that on California’s English insurance marketplace, users can browse plans before setting up an account, but on the Spanish site users must input personal information and create an account before they get to see what coverage is available.
California is one of the U.S. states that chose to create its own health insurance exchange, rather than relying on the federal marketplace HealthCare.gov. The federal exchange also has a Spanish counterpart: CuidadoDeSalud.gov. In October, the Spanish site launched but with limited capabilities and information, and visitors to the site were usually asked to call a federal hotline for additional insurance help. CuidadoDeSalud.gov was expected to go fully live at the end of November, but it wasn’t until early December that CuidadoDeSalud.gov had its experimental soft launch.
At the moment, CuidadoDeSalud.gov offers visitors to the site information about what Obamacare is, the job of a health insurance marketplace, and how subsidies can lower coverage costs. The site also defines health coverage terms, and has access to details for small business owners and those that are self employed. Shoppers can open an account, but must first provide information about their health, family and employment before being able to look at their potential health coverage choices. It is possible to view health plans and prices before signing up – but only in English.
The federal government has been busy overcoming the technological glitches of HealthCare.gov, but has also expressed the importance of getting CuidadoDeSalud.gov fully functioning as well. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has said that more than 10 million Latinos are expected to be eligible for health insurance, and of those almost 4 million would prefer to conduct their insurance shopping and purchasing in Spanish. Even Latino Americans with a good grasp of English may prefer to learn about their insurance options in Spanish, to be sure that every benefit and cost is fully understood. The HHS has noted that it expects the uninsured rate amongst Latinos to fall by 18 percent – assuming, of course, that this sector of the American population can find and sign up for coverage.
The Affordable Care Act itself has been translated into several languages, and documents related to the law are available in a number of other languages: you can read about small business options for health insurance in Portuguese; find out key health insurance dates in Creole; and download a Market Consumer Application in Punjabi, Polish and Thai. Non-English speakers can also call an Obamacare hotline and receive assistance in over 150 languages.