Community Group Hits Streets and Spanish Airwaves to Boost Cover Oregon

As the website faltered, Cover Oregon has been ever more reliant on the hard work of community organizations to sign people up. The Interface Network in Salem, which works heavily in the Latino community, has one more open house scheduled for April 19.

The Cover Oregon website has been notoriously plagued by a terrible website, but the state has consistently ranked in the middle of the pack compared to other states, and reported 63,000 private enrollments on April 10.

One key reason for this? Community partners, who have taken a more grassroots approach to getting people enrolled. These groups, along with insurance agents, can sit with a consumer face-to-face and guide them through the application process. Agents have been given the ability to enroll people immediately in a subsidized health plan, without waiting for Cover Oregon to take days to process the application.

“It helps to talk to someone and explain how it all works,” said Marin Arreola, who works with the Interface Network, which has been hired by Cover Oregon to reach out to people in the Salem area, including the Hispanic, Russian and Pacific Islander community. He said a face-to-face approach was particularly important in the people they reach, since many of them do not have Internet in their home yet are eager to have health coverage.

All of their employees are bilingual; most speak Spanish and English, while one speaks Russian and English, specializing in the substantial ethnic Russian population north of Salem near Gervais and Woodburn.

Hispanic Oregonians have proven especially hard to reach. A review of demographic data from the Oregon Health Authority showed that Hispanics have lower reported utilizations across the board for medical care compared to other ethnic/racial groups, both for emergency room visits and primary care appointments. The data may indicate a potential lack of familiarity with the established medical system.

Arreola said Interface was able to make good use of its $119,000 grant from Cover Oregon by leveraging its three decades of work in Oregon, including the past 11 years in Salem, to team up with other resources, such as Spanish-language radio stations to promote their work more effectively than Cover Oregon could do by itself.

Esther Puentes of Interface said they have enrolled 1,600 people in Cover Oregon plans and the Oregon Health Plan. The network is among one of 63 community partners across Oregon who received $6.1 million in grants to get the job done. Cover Oregon certified 1,200 people to assist with sign-ups in 303 organizations total.

Cover Oregon additionally gave out grants to small business groups, such as the Main Street Alliance, which received $100,000.

Navigators at Interface meet with consumers by appointment -- but generally not at their office in a musty old hotel on High Street in downtown Salem. The navigators travel to people’s houses or meet up in public places, like coffee shops to do the paperwork.

Open Houses

Interface has also staged several open houses in Salem and Woodburn where people completed the forms while interacting with personal navigators trained by Cover Oregon to assist with sign ups.

The network has one more sign-up event planned before the door closes on Cover Oregon’s open enrollment period -- this Saturday, April 19, at the Salem Convention Center, as part of its Latino Small Business Conference. Although geared to the Hispanic community, the event is open to the public.

The Salem event is among several signup drives across the state in the runup to the end of the extended open enrollment on April 30. The Main Street Alliance, a progressive small business group, is hosting a signup day the evening of April 21 at the Corvallis Public Library, and another event is in the works for April 24 in Portland.

Despite the failure of the SHOP program, businesses with fewer than 25 employees are still eligible for tax credits if they sponsor a qualified health plan purchased outside of Cover Oregon for their employees, something Courtney Helstein said many business owners don’t know.

“A lot of the businesses weren’t aware of that. But there was a lot of intrigue in getting tax credits to provide for their employees,” said Helsten, who primarily speaks to business owners about their options, but also held two small events in Hillsboro where 50 people were signed up into Cover Oregon, most going into private health coverage.

Spanish Radio

Arreola said Interface has been especially successful getting the word out about alternative ways to sign up for Cover Oregon through Spanish radio stations.

Dan Coss, who owns three Spanish radio stations in Woodburn, said he feels like a sponsoring partner with Arreola, with whom he’s worked for years to promote small business workshops that give people who have a passion for entrepreneurship the tools to be successful. Interface has also worked with youth to connect them with job training.

Interface does buy a certain amount of advertising from Coss, but he throws in a lot of free airtime, feeling it part of his own work to serve the community “He’ll have a certain budget. We will go far far beyond that.” Coss partners with paid advertisers such as McDonalds so he can provide the free public service announcements and still meet his bottom line.

“What he does is a tremendous service to the Hispanic community. We serve an underserved culture,” Coss said. They also serve a rapidly growing community. The Hispanic population grew from 17 percent of Marion County in 2000 to 25 percent in 2012.

One of Coss’s stations, KWBY-AM, was the first radio station in Oregon to broadcast anything in Spanish, starting in the 1960s. Coss took it over in the early ‘90s and turned its programming into 100 percent Spanish, and later switched KCKX-AM and KSNB-FM from English to Spanish. “I love crashing Anglo parties.”

When Arreola asked Coss to help connect Latinos to health insurance, it was their two-decades-long relationship that made it easy for Coss to agree.

“When we first started talking Cover Oregon, there was an immediate surge in those wanting more information and that quite frankly hasn’t stopped,” said Coss.

Christopher David Gray can be reached at [email protected].

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