Democrats still need to convince Hispanic voters that Obamacare is good for them.
Some 10.7 percent of health insurance exchange applicants were Latino, the Health and Human Services Department announced Thursday. This is the first time the Obama administration has released racial and ethnic information about the exchange population, and because applicants weren't required to disclose their race and ethnicity, the numbers reflect the roughly 70 percent who opted to report.
But the numbers track well with other surveys about the change in the uninsured rate among racial and ethnic minorities. Fewer than 11 percent of uninsured Hispanics got coverage during the Affordable Care Act's open-enrollment period, according to data from the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey. That's compared with 16 percent gains for blacks, 17 percent for Asians, and 14 percent for whites.
The number matters, because Hispanics are the nation's largest uninsured minority, accounting for 25 percent of all uninsured individuals in the United States who are eligible for coverage under the president's health law. And although 10.7 percent of exchange applicants were Latino, there's no indication of how many were signing up for health coverage for the first time. By Gallup's count, 37 percent of Hispanics remain uninsured—and the next closest subgroup, blacks, are all the way down at 17.6 percent uninsured.
Why didn't most of the 10.2 million uninsured Latinos eligible for coverage buy health insurance this year?
In part, it's because the administration fumbled. It delayed the launch of CuidadoDeSalud.gov—the Spanish-language enrollment website—until December, when it "soft launched" so that Latino groups working with the administration could test and report bugs.
Then when the administration did promote the website, users reported that the Spanish was a messy translation. Media reports about the accuracy of the translation were mixed, but suffice it to say that the Spanish language has many regional dialects that were not all reflected in the words used on CuidadoDeSalud.gov, making it more difficult for some native speakers to understand the health insurance application process.
More importantly, the administration delayed its outreach to the Latino population.
"They weren't able to get it right in terms of campaigning the policy," said Gabriel Sanchez, an associate professor and the interim executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico. "If they would have done more of that early on in the process, that would have been more effective. That shows direct investment and engagement."
The president's appeal—a series of interviews and town halls with Spanish-language media outlets—came at the end of open enrollment, when sign-ups were swelling across all racial and ethnic groups. Sanchez argues it was one of the most effective tools the administration used, because it showed that the White House was willing to court Latinos. He says the problem was that it came too late.
The administration knows it has work to do in getting Latinos signed up for health insurance. It acknowledged that fears of immigration officers using Hispanics' application information to track down unlawful residents limited the number of Hispanics signing up on the exchanges. Although undocumented Latinos are not eligible for Obamacare, many Latino residents who are U.S. citizens expressed concern for their undocumented friends and relatives. And Hispanics faced the same barriers as other racial and ethnic groups to getting coverage, namely, not knowing all that much about health insurance, its costs, and its coverage benefits.
"Our goal remains to continue to educate and enroll all Americans about the benefits and protections now available to them because of the Affordable Care Act," said Mayra Alvarez, associate director of the HHS Office of Minority Health. "We will continue to improve upon all of our outreach and education efforts, including efforts to the Latino community. Our strengthened relationships with community partners and Spanish-language media will help better prepare for us for the next open enrollment period and our shared goal of ensuring every eligible Latino is enrolled."
The administration has plans to beef up community partnerships so that more Hispanics can talk to someone they know and trust about health insurance. And they're going to make tweaks to the Spanish website to ensure that Latinos have the best possible online shopping experience. This year they already had numerous Spanish-speaking navigators, who served as in-person enrollment help.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle is just getting Hispanics to like Obamacare.
Sanchez also polls Hispanic adults about the health care law for Latino Decisions, a Latino political opinion research organization.
"Unfortunately, Latinos have consistently said they didn't feel their voices were being heard in the reform," Sanchez said. "For Latinos in particular, the Spanish-language tools not being released on time and then being riddled with issues when they finally did come out, that told them, 'Look, they really didn't care about our population getting signed up,' and that may have discouraged them."
The Pew Research Center tracked the unfavorable sentiment Hispanics hold toward the health law. Prior to opening of the insurance exchanges—and before word got out that CuidadoDeSalud.gov would be delayed—Pew found that Obamacare's approval ratings topped 61 percent among Hispanics.
By March 27, that number fell to 47 percent—along with 47 percent of Hispanics who disapprove of the law.
This article appears in the May 2, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.