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¿Habla Español? So Far, The Federally-Run Exchanges Do Not

¿Habla Español? So Far, The Federally-Run Exchanges Do Not

Picture of Jill  Braden Balderas

As the Health Insurance Marketplace launched Tuesday, the news media focused on computer glitches and long wait times.  But there’s one population that didn’t even have the opportunity to join the fray – native Spanish speakers, who make up a large percentage of the uninsured.

Folks going to -- in the 36 states that let the federal government oversee their exchanges -- can get all the information they want about the process of signing up. But they can’t actually apply.  The “Obtener un Seguro” or “Get Insurance” button keeps bringing people back to the main page where there’s no button to click to apply. So people are left going in circles with no information or explanation.

Anyone calling the Spanish toll free number hears the option, “Para continuar en Español, marque dos ahora” or “To continue in Spanish, press two now.”  The first three times I pressed 2, I received the message, “Okay, let’s get started.” No, I didn’t translate that for you non-Spanish speakers! The Spanish option sent me to the English line my first three attempts.

Because I understood the English prompts, I was able to get transferred to a Spanish-speaking representative after asking an English-speaking one, ¿Habla Español?  But after waiting for 30 minutes I hung up.  In any language, this gets tiresome.  And if you are trying to reach a target population, it's downright counterproductive.

My plan was to record what happened to me at the beginning, so you could hear it for yourself.  But the fourth time I called, pressing 2 brought me to a Spanish menu. It said thanks again for waiting (in Spanish) for another 30 minutes, until I hung up again. Perhaps others are more patient than I and waited to see if a representative picked up.

You might not be shocked that the mainstream media largely missed this, though NBC News and a few other outlets made small references to it Tuesday. Kaiser Health News reported on the delay last week, and in a similar story, detailed just how many folks this delay might affect:

About 10 million Latinos are eligible to buy insurance in the marketplace, and about a third of them are primary Spanish speakers, according to federal officials.

Knowing that, would it surprise you that some major Spanish-language news organizations in the United States glossed over the delay, while others never even reported it?

Last week, Univision and Fox News Latino ran an Associated Press story that health insurance plan options in Spanish would not be available online until mid-October. But Univision buried that information in a story Tuesday about the government shutdown at the bottom of the Health section. A Univision overview of the first day of sign-ups again made only passing reference to the delay. Fox News Latino didn’t have a same-day Spanish story about Tuesday's launch of the insurance marketplace. A story in English that ran Tuesday on Fox News Latino referenced the delay, but like Univision, there was no overt alert for their news consumers.

Telemundo reviewed five different plans in a story Monday night. Yet anyone watching that segment would have been completely unaware that they couldn’t sign up online the very next day. Telemundo even prominently links to the site from its health reform special section, but provides no notice that it is not ready for sign-ups.

Other sources I checked out include Mundo Fox, which does have a dedicated “Obamacare” section on its website. Of the two stories featured there, one borrowed liberally from the Marketplace website instructions for how to sign up, but gave no indication that Spanish speakers can’t apply for coverage there yet.

In its story last week about the delay, Kaiser Health News talked with Jennifer Ng’andu of the National Council of La Raza:

...[W]ith all of the marketing efforts highlighting Oct. 1 as the beginning of open enrollment, Ng’andu says there will be people who go to on on launch day seeking information. The administration “needs to accurately relay where people can go to get help — we cannot lose people because of the fact that a website was not functioning.”

I wonder how many people were lost online or via telephone because of the confusion and delays? As a basic public service, the insurance marketplace website should make it clear immediately to Spanish speakers that they will have to wait to sign up -- possibly until Oct. 21, according to one report. The risk of alienating this key constituency from reform is real. The best ones to hold the administration’s feet to the fire are journalists who report for Spanish-speaking audiences. They should connect the dots for consumers and own every angle of this story.

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