Consumer Communication with Covered California Hits Language Barrier

             

Covered California, a marketplace where customers can search for health insurance plans, has failed to communicate effectively with many of its non-English-speaking customers. To the agency’s credit, the past year has seen an improvement in the number of Spanish-language enrollment materials being distributed, but the language barrier remains high when it comes to important notices sent after enrollment.

For instance, a batch of notices sent to nearly 100,000 families in September informed them in English that they had until the end of that month to verify their immigration status. Failure to submit the proper documents could lead to discontinued coverage. However, if a family doesn’t know much English, this communication is ineffective.

In another example, Qiuhua Wu, a Chinese immigrant living in Sacramento, enrolled in a plan from Covered California. She thought auto payments were set up, so she didn’t pay her premiums for several months. As a native Mandarin Chinese speaker with a limited English vocabulary, she didn't understand the warning letters she received and ended up losing her coverage due to the language barrier.

Covered California’s customer communication techniques has several flaws:
  • Critical communications aren't provided in multiple languages. Even adding a tagline in other languages stating, "Failure to respond could result in loss of coverage" would be helpful.
  • Even when insurance agents specify "Chinese" or another language preference on the Covered California application, clients still receive letters in English.
  • Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on language, but not every document is required to be translated. Those that are can circumvent the requirement by including a phone number for assistance in other languages.
  • The language barrier causes people to fall through the cracks and lose their coverage.
Dana Howard, a spokesperson for Covered California, responded to these issues: "This is a new organization. We do communicate in both English and Spanish. We are building on the Asian languages. We hope to include all languages as we grow."
 
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