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updated: 3/5/2013 6:24 AM

Illinois nonprofits take lead on health overhaul

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  • Laura Lopez, left, checks the blood pressure of Santos Aguilar at the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, Calif.

    Laura Lopez, left, checks the blood pressure of Santos Aguilar at the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, Calif.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

Nonprofit groups and community organizations in Illinois aren't waiting for government officials to translate information about the nation's health overhaul into languages other than English.

In Illinois, where nearly 1.2 million residents don't speak English well, the task of translating information about the health care overhaul has fallen, for now, to nonprofit groups and community organizations. Illinois lagged behind California and some other states in applying for funds and does not expect to have federal money to back state government outreach efforts until later this year.

"So far, it's fallen to us and we don't know what (the state's) capacity will be to go beyond (translating into) Spanish," said Stephanie Altman of Health & Disability Advocates, a Chicago nonprofit.

To fill the gap, the Chicago group has worked with the Asian Health Coalition to produce fact sheets in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Khmer, Altman said. With help from a $10,000 grant from a foundation, the groups have distributed the fact sheets at five in-person presentations in linguistically isolated neighborhoods where many people have never heard of the Affordable Care Act or "Obamacare."

"They are legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens, but many still don't speak English proficiently," Altman said. Many own small businesses and are eligible for tax credits under the law, but may mistakenly believe that they must provide insurance for their workers. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from fees if their workers get subsidies on the health insurance exchanges.

Many currently uninsured legal immigrants will become eligible for Medicaid in 2014 and, if they're middle class, for subsidies to help them buy private insurance via a new online marketplace. Illinois, President Barack Obama's home state, is partnering with the federal government to offer the health insurance exchange, at least for the first year.

Illinois officials expect federal grant money to become available to help reach non-English speakers, said Mike Claffey, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. The state will submit an outreach plan to the federal government by the end of March. It will include translating information into several languages and a paid media plan that will include working with ethnic media.

"In creating the plan we are currently building relationships with community groups who know who the uninsured are in those specific communities," Claffey said.

Insurance companies, too, will be reaching out to non-English speakers. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois plans to have insurance information on the exchange available in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Navajo and traditional Chinese, said Mary Ann Schultz, a spokeswoman for the insurance carrier.

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