Arizonans who speak only Spanish are unable to use an online tool to purchase insurance under President Obama's health law.
Due to a problem on the website CuidadoDeSalud.gov, Spanish speakers can get all kinds of information about enrolling in subsidized insurance through the Arizona marketplace. But they cannot actually apply for the insurance.
Click on "Obtener un Seguro" (Get Insurance) and users will just get continuously taken back to the main page.
The problem is expected to be fixed by Oct. 21 in time for National Hispanic Week of Action, said David Sayen, administrator for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services region that includes Arizona. Sayen added that he does not think the glitch had anything to do with the federal government shutdown.
"That is absolutely going to be fixed," Sayen said Wednesday. "The really important thing is that enrolling now won't get you covered any faster than enrolling in November. You are not going to be in the program until January. We want to focus on the fact that we have six months to do this."
Open enrollment goes through March 31, and as long as people sign up by Dec. 15, they'll be covered on Jan. 1. There's no need to rush to purchase, and many health experts urge people to compare their options and think about it before actually making a purchase.
"I don't think we anticipated a lot of people on their first visit would close the deal," Sayen said.
Sayen stressed that Spanish speakers may get all the information they want about signing up for insurance 24 hours, seven days per week. The English and Spanish versions of the website (English version is www.healthcare.gov) have a "Find Local Help" option where people can locate certified navigators or application counselors close to their homes. Such people are at Tucson-area community health clinics, for example.
Spanish speakers have a multitude of other options for signing up, Sayen said, including calling the 1-800 number (1-800-318-2596).
"The online Spanish application is of concern, however, open enrollment goes until March 31 and there is lots of time," said Allen Gjersvig, director of health care innovation at the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers, which received a $1.3 million federal grant to coordinate Affordable Care Act outreach efforts.
"If we've encountered Spanish-speaking families who are marketplace-eligible the message is simple -- go online, start to learn and research. There is still plenty of time to sign up once the Spanish application is working."
Gjersvig isn't certain how many uninsured Arizonans prefer to communicate in Spanish, but it is significant, he said. Some of the alliance's partners do 80 percent of their work in Spanish.
A lack of health insurance disproportionately affects minorities. Hispanics are nearly three times more likely than whites to be uninsured, the National Council of La Raza says.
The federal government says about 10.2 million Latinos are eligible to purchase health insurance through the marketplaces. Nearly 600,000 Hispanic Arizonans are without health insurance, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed by Congress and signed into law in 2010, is expected to level the playing field for health insurance. The aim is to get more coverage for minorities and low-income people and reduce both health costs and preventable deaths.
Arizona's health insurance marketplace, where people may purchase federally subsidized health insurance, is operated by the federal government. People may purchase the insurance on the federally operated web portal that works a bit like Expedia, only it's health insurance and not flights that come up after inputting one's preferences.
English speakers are able to sign up on the marketplace by going to www.healthcare.gov, though the site has had some glitches for everyone.
In the first 24 hours of going live beginning Oct. 1, the site attracted 4.7 million unique visitors who requested more than 104,000 Web chats. Nearly 200,000 people called the toll-free number. That high volume may be why some people reported they were unable to compare plans.
"Our focus is more on the long haul here," Sayen said. "The story is that there is affordable health care available for people."
Sayen says people need to be patient with the website. The key is to wait and not start all over when the message comes up saying, "Please stay on this page."
People have been able to enroll already, though government officials haven't released any numbers yet.
Gjersvig noted that many of the uninsured Spanish speakers whom navigators and application counselors have encountered are eligible for Medicaid, which is a government insurance program for low-income people. The Arizona program expands in January, and an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 uninsured Arizonans under 65 will become eligible.
The federal marketplace is supposed to be referring people using the website to Arizona's Medicaid program if they are eligible. But that's not happening right now, Gjersvig said.
"That may not be working smoothly until mid-October," Gjersvig said.
Spanish speakers eligible for Medicaid may go directly to the Arizona enrollment site and bypass the marketplace. (That website is www.healthearizonaplus.gov)
One other aspect of the Affordable Care Act enrollment that is not yet fully functional is the marketplace for small businesses, the Small Business Health Options Program, also known as the SHOP.
Small businesses will be able to enroll beginning in November. The SHOP is already open for businesses to submit their applications for eligibility, review their coverage options and get help from the SHOP call center.
Unlike the marketplace for individuals, the SHOP marketplace is open year round. On Wednesday, the government announced a major outreach campaign to make sure small businesses have the information they need, giving small-business owners plenty of time to make a decision.
Federal officials have been encouraged by the public's response to the marketplaces, Sayen said. They had been concerned not enough people knew about the new options for purchasing insurance.
A recent segment on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" asked people what they liked better, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. (They are the same.) Those who answered seemed to think there was a difference. (tinyurl.com/nkflyx8)
"People began to talk about a difference that isn't there," Sayen said. "But, you know, apparently people did get the message that there is something and it has to do with health and it's worth looking at.
"And that is very positive."
(c)2013 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)
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Distributed by MCT Information Services
Original headline: Online glitch keeps Spanish-speakers from enrolling in health plan
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