Learning Health Insurance-Speak

Nov 6, 2013

Veronica Martinez helps an Aurora woman enroll into the health insurance marketplace
Credit WNIJ/Mike Moen

Despite technical obstacles, navigators are still helping people enroll into health-insurance marketplaces. In many communities, that includes helping those who speak little or no English. The northern Illinois region is no exception.

On a late Friday afternoon, Veronica Martinez is attending to one of her last appointments of the day at the Family Focus Center in Aurora. She’s assisting a woman named Martina, who speaks very little English.

Martinez is asking this client to pull out some information, including her ID. After she enters some information into the Get Covered Illinois website, Martinez shares some good news.

“She is eligible for the marketplace, because of her income,” Martinez said.

Because the federal website isn’t working, they will have to complete the application process by phone. Martinez says translating won’t be difficult. In these cases though, Martinez says she sometimes has to take extra steps to ensure the person truly understands what they may be signing up for.

“Maybe we don’t have it as a literal translation, but we can definitely explain things like deductibles and co-payments.  If they don’t understand the word, we can explain what it is and what it means. It’s like giving a health-insurance 101,” Martinez said.

Martinez says a lot of the people they assist have never had health insurance, or it’s been a while since they had coverage. She notes that going the extra mile to explain the process to clients who fall under that category helps to put them at ease.

She also says it’s especially gratifying to help in these cases. That’s because many who live within the center’s service area can’t enroll due to the fact they are undocumented immigrants.

In DeKalb County, navigator Cameron Zelaya says about 2 of every 5 clients he has helped primarily speak Spanish. One of the things he has noticed is a difference in dialect.

“I learned Spanish in Spain. So the Spanish I speak is a tiny bit different than the Spanish spoken by many of the residents here, which is heavily Mexican or Central American origin,” Zelaya said.

Still, Zelaya says translating the words hasn’t been a real problem. Like Veronica Martinez, Zelaya says conveying the meaning behind some of these terms becomes the focal point of the conversation.  

“Part of our job is to explain all these various parts. Doing that in another language isn’t that much different,” Zelaya said.

Zelaya says his main concern right now is making actual connections with the Latino population. He says that’s because, sometimes, it can be a hard demographic to reach. Zelaya says that’s one of the reasons why they continue to strategize their outreach efforts.

In some areas, it’s not just Spanish speaking clients the navigators are trying to help. For example, in Winnebago County, navigators are trying to connect the right community groups to help inform the area’s Laotian population.

Juliana Barker is the county’s in-person counselor grant coordinator. She says, at times, making those connections can be a daunting task, given the number of people who might be in the dark about the health-care law.  

“We’re just trying to reach people who might not watch the news, listen to the radio, or read the paper. There’s target populations out there that don’t have contact with these items, so we’re trying to think outside the box to get to them,” Barker said.

And these counselors say despite all the problems with Health Care.gov, and some of the long waits on help lines, it’s still beneficial for non-English speaking residents to call the hotline numbers at the state and federal levels. They offer help in several different languages, and officials say the person on the other line might have quicker access to medical records.

They say that is a big plus in cases where someone is learning to speak the health-care language.