As Covered California points to a surge of enrollment in affordable healthcare, Black advocates await word on the effectiveness of African-American outreach.

By McKenzie Jackson | California Black Media

Amid reports of an overall surge of enrollment in affordable healthcare plans, advocates for uninsured African-Americans are eager to evaluate the results of a new round of Black community outreach by Covered California.

Some of the answers they seek may arrive at a Jan. 15 meeting of the Covered California board of directors, where officials are expected to air a demographic breakdown of new enrollees during the first month of open enrollment – which began last month and concludes Feb. 15. As the state’s official vehicle for getting uninsured Californians into the healthcare system, Covered California has faced waves of criticism for getting too few African-Americans into either affordable private health insurance plans or Medi-Cal – the state’s free or low-cost option for those with low incomes.

“This is a fast-moving process,” Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee said in a Dec. 17 conference call with reporters. “We have been trying to be as transparent as possible, but the analytics of it take some time. We are trying to get the numbers out there as quickly as we can.”

The lead-up to this highly-anticipated moment comes as a leading advocate for affordable healthcare in Black and other underserved communities, Dr. Robert K. Ross, exits the Covered California board. The head of the California Endowment recently announced that his resignation from the volunteer, part-time board will be effective Dec. 31 – two years before the expiration of his term.

In an interview conducted Nov. 14, one day before the start of the three-month enrollment period now underway, Ross told California Black Media that health care advocates should not rest until 100 percent of eligible African-Americans are enrolled in low-cost healthcare plans.  “We have to find them,” he said, “and get them in.”

Covered California spokesperson James Scullary said the organization is using several methods to funnel information about coverage opportunities to the Black community. One key element: partnerships with Black churches in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. “These churches are doing outreach at their church events, health ministries, community fairs, etc.,” he said in a Dec. 15 email.

Scullary also said there has been substantial interest and positive feedback from the Black community, with more Covered California agents available to help navigate individuals and families toward low-cost healthcare options that are right for them.  “We’ve increased the number of storefronts anchored in African-American communities.” he said. “For example, Crenshaw Health Partners in the Crenshaw Mall will be open seven days a week, as will Kelly Rolfe Financial Services at South Bay Pavilion [near Inglewood].”

As advocates await word on whether Covered California is effectively reaching uninsured African-Americans, the organization is sounding notes of optimism on overall efforts.

During his conference call with reporters, Lee noted that 592,927 people have sought information either through Covered California’s agents and online resources or licensed insurers. Lee said the influx included 157,361 who were determined eligible for services, but had not yet selected a health plan; and 144,178 who had chosen a plan. Additionally, 216,423 people enrolled in Medi-Cal (California’s free or low-cost health plan for those with low incomes), and 74,965 individuals were deemed eligible for it.

“We are very pleased with the amount of enrollment we are seeing one month in,” Lee said. “Those numbers are incredibly strong. On the call, Lee also explained that the deadline to enroll in health insurance that takes effect Jan. 1 was extended to Dec. 21 in order to help more people “get across the finish line.”

“We aren’t doing this because the [computer] systems are slow,” Lee said. “Insurance is confusing. We want to give people the opportunity to have their questions addressed either in-person or on the phone – and get to signed up.”

By either going to the Covered California website, calling in or working with licensed insurance agents, individuals and families can use the marketplace to access affordable health coverage with such insurers as Anthem Blue Cross, Health Net, and Molina Healthcare.

Lee said Covered California can enroll 500,000 Californians into affordable healthcare by the end of open enrollment, and surpass its goal of signing-up 1.7 million people – which includes re-enrolling 1.1 million people.

The initial Covered California enrollment period, which ran from October 2013 to last March, delivered results that disappointed Black legislators and community advocates who had hoped to see larger numbers of African-Americans enrolled. At seven percent of the state’s population, with an uninsured rate estimated at 17 percent, Blacks comprised only about three percent of the Covered California enrollees. Latinos, Asians and Whites enrolled in much greater numbers.

Before the second open enrollment period began, Covered California officials pledged to make stronger attempts to reach African-Americans in need of health care. Scullary, the Covered California spokesman, said African-Americans are featured in Covered California’s “I’m In” marketing campaign, which focuses on showcasing “real Covered California consumers, talking about what being covered means to them and their families.”

In a Dec. 10 press release, Toby Douglas, director of the Department of Health Care Services said it is clear that Californians want health coverage and that the improvements in the enrollment system have made a difference.

“About 75 percent of the new applicants who qualify for Medi-Cal through the web portal are enrolled immediately into coverage – without delay,” he said. “We’ll continue our work to make quality, comprehensive coverage more easily available to all Californians.”

Added Lee: “We are seeing huge momentum in enrollment, which has given us great confidence.”


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