National Review Online Thinks “Latino” And “Primarily Spanish-Speaking” Are The Same Thing

National Review Online (NRO) managed to inaccurately report the findings of a Kaiser Health News article on primarily Spanish-speaking enrollees in California's health insurance exchange as applicable to all Latinos.

For California's health insurance marketplace to succeed, younger and healthier uninsured persons must enroll to balance the risk pool, a demographic that is significantly Latino. Accordingly, health care reform advocates were concerned when October enrollment numbers revealed that only 3 percent of new consumers "spoke primarily Spanish," an indication that outreach to the Hispanic community may be lagging.

NRO, however, inaccurately cited Kaiser Health News' report that "fewer than 1,000 signed up" by conflating this number of primarily Spanish-speaking Californians with all Latinos in general. From NRO:

Fewer than 1,000 Latinos signed up for Obamacare in California in the law's first month, about 3 percent of the state's 31,000 enrollees.

That's an alarming number for a state where Latinos make up approximately 60 percent of the uninsured population, and it comes in spite of nonprofits and Covered California, the state's health-care exchange, spending millions on advertising and outreach to Latinos.

Such efforts don't appear to be getting it done; there are simply too many other hurdles to enrolling Spanish-speakers. The Spanish-language version of the Covered California website has asked security questions in English and misspelled Spanish words like “si” (“sí” is Spanish for “yes,” but “si” means “if”), according to Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment, a philanthropy organization making efforts to enroll Latinos.

Calling the exchange's hotline is unlikely to help Latinos, either; the telephone system has given English prompts to Spanish-speakers. It lacks enough bilingual operators and the average wait-time is 18 minutes, as well. If Latinos don't want to apply over the phone or Internet, they're in a jam; Spanish paper applications won't be available until mid-December.

Slow Latino enrollment in California's new insurance exchange certainly is alarming. Some Latinos have limited English proficiency. These percentages are not interchangeable, however, as not all Latinos are primarily Spanish-speaking.

In fact, based on the 2009 American Community Survey, it is estimated that 3/4 of the Latino population speak English, 1/2 are bilingual, and 1/4 speak English only. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2020, the number of Latinos who only speak English at home will rise to 34% of the population.

It is laudable that NRO is suddenly concerned about the uninsurance problem among Latinos and the Affordable Care Act. In discussing solutions to enrollment problems, however, perpetuating stereotypes about Latinos' ability to speak English doesn't help.