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Extending the reach

With Black community awareness of Obamacare benefits falling short of expectations, California advocates and consumers urge renewed effort and focus.

By McKenzie Jackson, California Black Media

Last May, Covered California, the state’s health insurance marketplace,  announced the awarding of $37 million in grants that would flow to a total of nearly 300 organizations — all working to conduct outreach and develop tailored education plans about affordable health care coverage available through the state exchange.

At the time, the organization’s executive director, Peter V. Lee, said the initiative would “build on our partnerships with organizations that have trusted relationships in diverse communities throughout the state.”

Targeting a total of 9 million Californians, 32 grants were said to be focused on African-American outreach, compared to 37 targeting Latinos. Twenty-seven grants were focused on Caucasian outreach and education, with 20 aimed at the Asian-Pacific Islander community.

According to a statement issued by Covered California, the intent was as clear as it was noble: to foster successful outreach “programs in communities where likely enrollees live, work, pray, shop, and play, with a goal … to increase awareness about the new benefits, to educate targeted audiences about the subsidy programs available to them and to motivate consumers and small businesses to be part of obtaining health insurance.”

These efforts are widely perceived to have been in good faith. But with so few African-Americans enrolled in Obamacare benefits through the state exchange questions linger about the effectiveness of the outreach. As of last month, only about 11,000 blacks were on the Covered California rolls —  representing about 3.1 percent of enrollees, despite numbering seven percent of the state’s total population..

“We definitely need to increase the outreach to African-Americans,” said Karen D. Lincoln, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California and founder of the organization Advocates for African-American Elders. “I think the fact that the primary method of enrollment is via the Internet, there is a large segment of our population who cannot enroll. Now, among the general population of African-Americans, there is certainly more use of social media — but access can be a problem, particularly when you are in a multi-generational household and there are many people, who are maybe using one computer. Access can be a bit of a challenge.”

“Yet,” says Lincoln, “the issue is not entirely generational. The other part that I think is important for the general population of African-Americans, we do need more outreach,” she said. “As advocates, we have been passing out fact sheets about how to enroll, the importance of enrolling, the deadlines, the penalties for not enrolling … but I don’t think the message is clear. I don’t think the message is widespread enough among us, and I think we do need to do a little bit more educating on the importance of it.”

A growing number of health care advocates believe additional education and outreach should be focused on raising black community awareness about the opportunities available through Medi-Cal. Too often, it is misunderstood to be a program only available for mothers and their children, but as of January 1, 2014, it has expanded to cover anyone whose resources are so limited that they cannot afford any other health care plan.

Advocates are now stepping in to help boost the effectiveness of the outreach. For example, The California Endowment, in partnership with DHCS, has launched a $23 million statewide effort to boost Medi-Cal enrollment in 36 counties across the state. In a joint statement, the two organizations said the grants would “support overall efforts to increase awareness of Medi-Cal for those who are eligible, but not yet enrolled, while helping retain current members. It will emphasize reaching certain specific populations … with educational information that is meaningful and relevant to their needs.”

“We know that one-on-one assistance is vital to helping those who are hardest to reach and most in need,” said Robert K. Ross, M.D., CEO and President of The Endowment.  “We are excited to partner with DHCS to fund outreach and enrollment assistance at the local level.  This is an important investment that will help hundreds of thousands of Californians enroll in Medi-Cal.”

Considering the numbers, those efforts appear to be worthwhile. According to Covered California, as of 2013 there were 8.5 million Californians enrolled in Medi-Cal. Thanks to Obamacare, up to two million more residents of are expected to be eligible this year — with a significant percentage of those potential enrollees believed to be African-American.

Thomas Duncan, CEO of Trusted Health Plan, a Washington D.C.-based managed healthcare organization, argues that African-Americans are poised to be among the chief benefactors of the healthcare law. In an article entitled “African-Americans Will Benefit Greatly From Obamacare,” published February 6 in the International Business Times, Duncan wrote that a disproportionate percentage of blacks will become newly eligible for health coverage.

“Prior to the Affordable Care Act, our nation’s healthcare system was discriminatory to both lower- and middle-wage workers,” he wrote, adding that socioeconomic factors and of debilitating and fatal diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. “But now, Obamacare will open the door to preventive, primary, and strategic specialty care for millions of African-Americans and others.”

With those factors in mind, those who have been served by Covered California express hope that more African-Americans will decide to enroll themselves and their families.

“Black people, we need that,” said Joseph Thomas, a 31-year-old Woodland Hills resident. He estimates that the Covered California plan he recently obtained online with his domestic partner would save their household about $1,200 per year. “[It’s important because] we don’t seem to go to the doctor as regularly as we should — but we always seem to have health issues and die earlier.” To find out where you or a loved one can enroll in person go to www.coveredca.comand click on find local help.

Next week: In African-American communities statewide, churches remain the de facto town square. How are black faith organizations stepping up to encourage enrollment in affordable healthcare?

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