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California ramps up Latino outreach as healthcare deadline nears

NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than 800,000 Californians have enrolled in private health insurance under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law, but that number included fewer Latinos than officials hoped, the head of its state-run marketplace said on Wednesday.

California has already exceeded estimates of how many people it would enroll by March 31, signing up 828,638 residents for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, said executive director Peter V. Lee.

Officials had hoped more Latinos would enroll, partly because polls have shown Latinos are more supportive of the healthcare reform law. In September, the Pew Research Center found 61 percent of Hispanics viewed it favorably, compared to 29 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Yet their enrollment has lagged.

To address the shortfall, Covered California is rolling out a multimillion-dollar outreach campaign to run until March 31, the enrollment deadline for health insurance coverage in 2014.

California and federal health exchange officials have made Latino enrollment a priority for several reasons, including the group's median age and its large numbers who lack health insurance. In the U.S., the median age of Latinos is 27, compared to 42 for non-Latino whites, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Insurers want younger customers because their medical costs are generally lower than older people's.

About 31 percent of Latinos have no health coverage, according to Pew, compared to 16 percent of the overall U.S. under-65 population.

In the first three months of 2014, Covered California will spent $8.2 million for ads on Spanish-language media to reach those uninsured Latinos, Lee said. That represents an increase of 73 percent from the last three months of 2013.

The final push before next month's enrollment deadline focuses on what Lee called "the ground game." Covered California is adding more bilingual enrollment counselors and hiring more bilingual call-center representatives in seven communities with large populations of Latinos who are eligible for federal subsidies to help pay premiums for health insurance.

They include areas in Los Angeles, in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and in the Central Valley and San Joaquin Valley.

"People want to sit across the table from someone" helping them enroll, Lee said.

Reasons why Latino enrollment figures have been low include fear of immigration enforcement and a lack of awareness. Undocumented immigrants cannot buy insurance on the insurance exchanges, creating problems for families where one or both parents are in the U.S. illegally.

Surveys also have shown that roughly half of Latinos nationally say they are familiar with the insurance exchanges, compared to nearly 70 percent of non-Hispanic whites and blacks.

The outreach has already yielded results. In January, Latino enrollment in Covered California plans represented 28 percent of total sign-ups, compared to 18 percent for October through December.

"We had 45,745 Latinos enroll in a single month," Lee said in reference to the January numbers.

(Editing by Amanda Kwan)

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