US
People sign up for health insurance information at a Covered California event which marks the opening of the state People sign up for health insurance information at a Covered California event which marks the opening of the state's Affordable Healthcare Act, commonly known as Obamacare, health insurance marketplace in Los Angeles, California, October 1, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson  

Report: Faulty Obamacare Translations In California Hurt Enrollment

California’s Obamacare exchange produced applications and enrollment information with a host of mistranslations and poor sign-up resources, preventing non-English speakers from getting coverage, according to a Wednesday report.

The problem was especially apparent for Spanish speakers — a significant failure in a state where 38 percent of the population is Hispanic. Enrollment materials were often mistranslated or confusing — when they were even available, the Greenlining Institute reports.

“I found myself constantly using the online application because of its simplicity,” one Los Angeles-area enrollment counselor told the Greenlining Institute, a racial justice nonprofit. “But the Spanish application was too confusing for clients, so I would use the English applications and translate the questions.”

Paper applications weren’t translated correctly and many missed “culturally and linguistically appropriate” information for both enrollment and general education on health insurance plans, which are foreign to many non-English speakers in California and elsewhere.

“In a number of cases, brochures and educational materials used language that did not resonate with [limited-English proficiency] communities because translations did not use words and phrases familiar to native speakers,” the report found. “Every person we interviewed identified language barriers as the biggest obstacle to educating and enrolling more people in health insurance plans.”

Language used in non-English enrollment materials simply not making sense to native speakers raises question about whether translations were given a run-through by experts fluent in other languages.  

The Obama administration was also hit by the Associated Press for providing a Spanish-language website, CuidadoDeSalud.gov, which appeared to have been automatically translated and written in ‘Spanglish,’ although the federal government denied the claims. But the endemic problems with Spanish Obamacare materials is especially grievous in California, where close to 60 percent of the uninsured are Latino, according to the California Health Care Foundation.

While California unsurprisingly had the largest Obamacare enrollment of any single state, those that don’t speak English were significantly underrepresented, the report concluded. Thirty percent of Californians eligible for the Obamacare exchange don’t count English as their primary language, but the group makes up just 10 percent of Obamacare sign-ups.

The lack of available resources for customers that don’t speak English often led Obamacare workers to take more liberties in interacting with customers than expected, like translating sensitive enrollment and education information themselves, or simply left the uninsured to their own devices.

One enrollment officer told the institute that they simply “passed out English marketing materials” to non-English speaking communities and “hoped someone would be able to translate it for them.”

The group recommends that the Obamacare exchange contract with professional translation services in order to make sure that customers are able to understand the applications in the future.

Follow Sarah on Twitter