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Healthcare Exchange Faces Language Barriers (Mar 04, 2013)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma officials say they've had no contact with the federal government about how to tell the state's non English speaking population about the federal health care overhaul.

More than 276,163 Oklahoma residents, or 8.2 percent of the state's population, speak a language other than English at home, according to 2007 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those, 120,658 say they speak English less than very well.

The vast majority of non-English speakers, more than 180,000, speak Spanish, and the Oklahoma Health Department provides bilingual translators in many county health departments to assist the Spanish-speaking community, according to agency spokeswoman Leslea Bennett-Webb.

``All state agencies are tasked with trying to assure that their messages reach non-English speakers,'' Bennett-Webb said.

The federal government could tap that resource when it launches it's online insurance marketplace, she said. ``But they haven't asked us to,'' she said.

The federal government has said it wants the federally facilitated insurance exchanges available starting Oct 1. But Bennett-Webb said federal officials have provided limited information to the Health Department regarding creation of the exchange or the government's plan for outreach or consumer assistance.

A spokesperson for the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services said the agency is developing a plan for outreach and education that will raise consumer awareness about new coverage opportunities that will be available in 2014 and is committed to making information available is culturally appropriate ways, including reaching a large Spanish speaking

The Oklahoma City-County Health Department has employed as many as five Spanish translators to help assist the county's more than 74,000 Spanish-speaking residents, including more than 40,000 who say they speak English less than very well.

``We always have translators,'' said human resources administrator Lorri Essary. She said the agency works closely with Spanish language broadcasters in the city to inform Spanish-speaking residents of its services.

``We make every effort to assure we can communicate with our clients,'' Essary said.

In 2011, Gov. Mary Fallin rejected a $54.6 million federal grant to help create a health insurance exchange for the state that is required by the new law, opening the door for the federal government to create its own exchange for the state.

Because the state is not directly involved in the exchange's creation, Bennett-Webb said it is not the state's responsibility to assure it is accessible for non-English speakers.

She said information from the government about the exchange has been limited. The government's work has mostly involved the insurance regulatory environment in Oklahoma, and while state health officials have asked questions concerning consumer assistance the government has provided no information and there have been no specific conversations regarding non-English speaking users, she said.

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