AP: Health care law confusing for immigrants

3/5/2013

WICHITA (AP) — When Emira Palacios saw a Spanish-language television ad talking about the new federal health care law, the immigrant from Mexico said it made her want to learn more about whether she could finally get insurance coverage as a Kansas resident.

WICHITA (AP) — When Emira Palacios saw a Spanish-language television ad talking about the new federal health care law, the immigrant from Mexico said it made her want to learn more about whether she could finally get insurance coverage as a Kansas resident.

However, the advertisement she saw on Univision applied only to California residents. Palacios found it was far more difficult to get Spanish language information for Kansas, which has a far smaller Hispanic population and where political leaders have been vehemently opposed to the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

"I do not have insurance so if there is something out there I can have access to, I definitely would like to know and I even would like to know what are my obligations, you know, in that regard," said Palacios, 47, who works for a Wichita firm that advocates for immigrant issues. "What am I supposed to do if I do not have insurance?"

Palacios, who as a naturalized U.S. citizen speaks some English, says the problem could be far worse for the state's residents who speak none.

Kansas, where meatpacking plants have drawn immigrants from numerous countries — has more than 186,500 residents who primarily speak Spanish at home, census figures show. Of those, nearly 86,000 say they speak English "less than very well." Thousands additional Kansans primarily speak German, French, Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese or some other language at home.

It's unclear whether the kind of ad targeted at Californians will ever air in Kansas, or how aggressively government leaders will bridge the language gap as the ACA takes hold.

Kansas has opted to let the federal government set up its health insurance marketplace. In 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback returned a $31.5 million federal grant to set up an exchange and do outreach efforts to all its residents.

"It makes me angry. We need to know these things," Palacios said of Brownback's move.

Some private health groups have stepped in to try to fill some of that information void, but their resources fall far short of the millions of federal dollars Brownback rejected. Among those private education efforts is the Health Reform Resource Project, an initiative funded by private health foundations in Kansas to provide education and resources to educate the public on the new health care law and insurance exchanges.

"Other states that are participating in the plan, they are getting federal money to build health insurance marketplaces and part of that money is going to outreach and education," said Sheldon Weisgrau, director of the Health Reform Resource Project. "We don't have access to that, so it is left to folks like me to provide outreach and education. But it is difficult because I don't have those kinds of resources and I am also operating in an environment where the political leadership is very vociferous and vocally opposed to this."

Weisgrau, who speaks no Spanish, is the project's only employee. He has been giving talks to English-speaking groups across the state.

"There has been so much noise and rhetoric about this in the past that most folks, even if they think they understand what is in the law, often have misinformation that needs to be corrected. But most people just don't know a lot about it at all," Weisgrau said.

Consumers in every state are expected to have access to health care coverage when open enrollment begins on Oct. 1. Since Kansas is a federally facilitated exchange, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be in charge of informing the Kansas population on the new law, said Cindy Hermes, director of public outreach at the Kansas insurance Department.

"I wouldn't say we are doing nothing, but they are in charge and the ones leading the education effort," Hermes said.

She noted the federal government has brochures and other literature printed in various languages, and the feds are in charge in paid media advertising.

The new health care law also provides for "navigator grants" that will awarded to individuals or groups to pay for some outreach efforts for non-English speaking populations in states which have decided against setting up their own exchanges.

But it is unclear just how much federal funding will be available for those navigator grants or other education efforts. Another problem is that since Kansas is not running its own exchange, the federal government gets to decide who gets grant funding to be navigators for those state's non-English speaking populations.

Whether or not the federal government knows the "right" Hispanic groups with relationships in those non-English speaking communities is "questionable," Weisgrau said.

"To me that is one of the disadvantages of having it run from a federal level, rather than a state level," he said.

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