Correction: Health Overhaul-Language Barrier story

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In Illinois, where nearly 1.2 million residents don’t speak English well, the task of translating information about the health care overhaul into other languages has fallen to nonprofit groups and community organizations.

“So far it’s fallen to us, and we don’t know what (the state’s) capacity will be to go beyond Spanish,” said Stephanie Altman of Health and Disability Advocates.

The state intends to submit an outreach plan to the federal government this spring. Illinois officials expect federal grant money eventually will be available to help reach non-English speakers, said Mike Claffey, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

The U.S. Census estimates that more than 55 million people speak a language other than English at home. Nearly 63 percent of those are Spanish-speakers, with the highest concentrations in Texas, California and New Mexico. Chinese was the third most commonly spoken language, with large populations in California, New York, Hawaii and Massachusetts.

Five other languages have at least 1 million speakers: Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German and Korean.

In California, two-thirds of the estimated 2.6 million adults who will be eligible for federal subsidies in the health care exchange will be people of color, while roughly 1 million will speak English less than very well, according to a joint study by the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center.

With such diversity in cultures and language, the authors said the success of health care reform “hinges in large part on how well the state conducts culturally and linguistically competent outreach and enrollment efforts.”

“If the exchange did no targeted outreach, there could be 110,000 fewer limited-English proficient individuals enrolled,” said Cary Sanders, director of policy analysis for CPEHN, an Oakland-based multicultural health advocacy group.

Even the relatively mundane task of developing a brand for California’s new health care exchange has prompted some angst.

The exchange’s staff tried to come up with a name that signified health insurance and would translate well into Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and other languages commonly used in California.

The exchange’s five-member board settled on “Covered California” and is currently testing tag lines to see which words resonate best in focus groups. Advocates disappointed by the name are hoping the board selects a tag line that will be simple to understand and translate.

Jaden, for instance, said she had no idea how “Covered California” would translate to Mongolian.

More importantly, they want Covered California to launch an inclusive marketing and outreach campaign in a place where a majority of the population is not white and nearly 7 million residents speak limited English.

“‘Covered California’ translates to California Cubierto in Spanish, but what exactly does it mean?” said Laura Lopez, Street Level Health Project’s executive director, who immigrated to the United States from Peru years ago. “It’s not just providing a piece of paper that says this is what is covered. It’s really having people on the ground talking with the community.”

California’s exchange isn’t shying away from the challenges.

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