Obamacare enrolling Latinos may boost Democrats' political edge

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

SAN FRANCISCO — The battle over Obamacare is taking on political importance as Democrats hope a successful roll-out among Hispanics will further bind those voters to the Democratic Party and undermine Republican efforts to build more support before the 2016 presidential election.

In California, where Hispanics will outnumber whites within a year, backers of the Affordable Care Act are ramping up outreach in places like Richmond, a San Francisco Bay Area city whose population is almost 40 percent Hispanic and where about 18 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

"A lot of the long-term implications, partisanship-wise and electorally, are going to depend on how well the outreach does," said Gabriel Sanchez, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

Getting Latinos to enroll in Obamacare won't be an easy task, said Dulce Delgadillo, 28, a research assistant at Harder+Company, a San Francisco-based community research firm.

"There is a general fear of government by that population," Delgadillo said in an interview at an Oakland health fair. "And there is a huge gap in knowledge" about the law's benefits.

Miguel Cajas, 55, a Peruvian-born U.S. citizen from Richmond, pays $800 monthly for health coverage, which he said makes it tough to support his family of five on his annual income of $22,000.

Cajas, a truck driver, last year was diagnosed with a cancer of the blood cells. While he's fairly sure he'll reduce his costs through Obamacare, he said he's not so certain he'll get the same level of care he receives now.

Without the same benefits, and if the cancer comes back, "I'll be in big trouble," he said.

Hispanic voters backed Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney 71 percent to 27 percent in 2012.

About 61 percent of Hispanics approve of the health-care law, compared with 29 percent of whites and 91 percent of blacks, according to a Pew Research Center and USA Today survey conducted Sept. 4-8. Hispanics will outnumber whites in California next year for the first time and will represent almost half of residents by 2060, the state's Finance Department said in January.

Lack of knowledge about Obamacare continues to be a big issue among Hispanics, who see the law as "complicated and confusing," Sanchez said in a telephone interview.

A threatened U.S. government shutdown and a growing list of delays involving new exchanges may not make potential enrollees more confident. While the shutdown won't stop the exchange roll- out, which is largely funded through mandatory appropriations that can't be curtailed by congressional inaction, it's an open question whether it will lessen public enthusiasm to enroll. In the meantime, technical glitches are beginning to surface.

People in Oregon, for example, won't be able to enroll in a plan for the first few weeks unless they go through a broker or designated nonprofit groups, and the exchange in the nation's capital won't include premium prices until mid-November.

Nonetheless, such complications haven't surfaced in California and Latinos "remain much more enthusiastic about the law than the general population," Sanchez said.

"Ultimately, a large number of Latinos will enroll and they'll overwhelmingly like it," Gary Segura, a political science professor at Stanford University, said in an interview.

Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a Washington-based group advocating limited government, disagreed.

"There's no question that Obamacare is a disastrous health-care policy for the entire country, including the Latino population," Lopez said in a telephone interview. "The more you explain, the more people get it."

The $1.4 trillion Affordable Care Act seeks to extend coverage to most of the nation's 50 million uninsured. Coverage begins in January, and most people will be required to have public or private health coverage or pay the higher of 1 percent of their annual income or $95, a penalty that grows to 2.5 percent of income or $695 by 2016. A network of insurance exchanges where consumers can buy subsidized plans, the core part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, opens Tuesday.

Latinos represent 46 percent of the 2.6 million California residents eligible for subsidized coverage, said Santiago Lucero, a spokesman for Covered California, which runs the state insurance exchange.

Community group representatives have been fanning out for weeks to farmers' markets, job fairs and grocery stores across California to inform the public about the law.

Shanti Jensen, a health educator who works for the Fresno- based California Health Collaborative, said she's visited about two dozen events and talked to about 400 people after completing two days of training last month.

Her organization got a $940,000 grant from Covered California to get the word out to uninsured women.

Standing next to her booth at a farmer's market in Richmond on Sept. 20, she asked passers-by if they know of anyone who needs health insurance. She offered brochures in English and Spanish with a sign overhead that read "Informacion, coveredca.com."

At the Oakland health fair, part-time college student Nayeli Cruz, 21, said she can't afford to see a doctor on her annual salary of about $20,000 since getting cut off from Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid program, a couple of months ago. She plans to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

"For me it's the constant comfort that in case I do get sick or my asthma acts up, I'll be fine," Cruz, who voted for Obama in 2012, said in an interview.

Genoveva Garcia Calloway is the mayor of San Pablo, a city about 20 miles from San Francisco whose population is 57 percent Hispanic. She said Obamacare in California will succeed.

"It might have its kinks to work out, but it's not going to fail," Garcia Calloway, 63, said in an interview at the Richmond farmer's market. "There are just too many people who need this."

_ With assistance from Alex Wayne in Washington.

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