Health plans push coverage options for Hispanics

Insurers are reaching out to the fastest-growing -- and least-insured -- ethnic group.

By Emily Berry — Posted Oct. 15, 2007

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About one-third of Latinos have no health insurance, the highest rate of any ethnic group in the U.S. Meanwhile, the Latino population is growing by more than 3% annually, the highest rate of any ethnic group in the U.S.

For the nation's largest health plans, this equals growth opportunity. Health insurers say they are increasing their marketing efforts to sell individual plans to Latinos, and to encourage more participation in employer-offered plans.

The push comes as plans increase niche marketing to specific populations, particularly those who can afford insurance, but choose not to buy it. For example, WellPoint says it has had success selling its Tonik family of individual plans specially designed for single people in their 20s. In contrast, health plans' efforts with Latinos mostly involve selling current plans, not creating new ones.

Health plans say their efforts can play a big part in cutting down the number of uninsured in the U.S. But analysts say the plans have their own financial interests in mind as well.

Marketing to Latinos is an imperative for insurance companies to grow, because the commercial business growth is limited, particularly as more smaller employers decide they can't afford health coverage as a benefit, said Sam Fleet, president and CEO of AmWINS Group Benefits at AmWINS Group Inc., a group benefits wholesaler.

"The real organic growth is the 47 million Americans that are uninsured," he said.

Latinos have the highest uninsured rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. It says about 34% of Hispanics lack health insurance, compared with about 20% of African-Americans and 15% of white non-Hispanics. If current trends persist, the raw number of Latinos without insurance will rise quickly. The Latino population, now at about 14% of the U.S. total, is projected to reach 20% by 2030, the Census Bureau estimates.

Analysts say there are several reasons for the high uninsured rate among Latinos. One is a lack of understanding of the U.S. health system. Another is a fear of deportation, even among legal immigrants. And another is being too poor to easily afford individual health coverage but making too much money to qualify for Medicaid or other assistance.

"That is a real difficult issue to overcome simply by talking to people," said Ted Reutz, PhD, president of Benefits Design Inc., an employee-benefit design firm and benefits provider based in Austin, Texas.

A 2005 analysis by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services found that while poverty rates for Hispanics are slightly lower than those for African-Americans, Hispanics are more likely to work at jobs where health insurance is not offered as a benefit. When insurance is offered by an employer, Hispanics elect coverage as often as people in other ethnic groups, according to the HHS report.

Some analysts say the HHS study suggests Latinos would be willing to buy individual plans if someone explained how they work, and how they could afford them.

WellPoint has kicked off a new campaign for Hispanic customers, called Nuestro Bien, or "our well-being." Options highlighted on its Web site (link) include HMO and PPO plans administered by Blue Cross of California, the first state targeted in a program WellPoint expects to use throughout the country. California has the nation's highest Latino population: 13 million of the state's 36.5 million residents.

Sherry Jansen, individual product innovation director for WellPoint, said her company's research found Hispanic customers value face-to-face contact, so the company is working to increase the number of Spanish-speaking and Hispanic insurance agents selling the company's plans.

Other big plans also have Latino marketing efforts, including:

  • Aetna, which in September issued a free online guide for Spanish-speaking consumers. The guide, "Guia de Beneficios de Salud Para Dummies," or "Health Benefits Guide for Dummies," is available online (link).
  • UnitedHealthcare, which, starting with its California-based subsidiary PacifiCare, has a marketing strategy for the Hispanic market based on educating recent immigrants about how the U.S. health care system works, said Russ Bennett, vice president for Latino Health Solutions at United. Mr. Bennett has led that division under PacifiCare since its formation in 2002.
  • Health Net of California, which in 2000 kicked off its Latino marketing and product efforts with Salud con Health Net (Health with Health Net). Ana Andrade, vice president for Latino programs for Health Net, said the company regularly holds health fairs at the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, and offers health plans that provide coverage in the U.S. and Mexico.

Despite the limits of individual health plans, the Hispanic community, and perhaps her practice, would benefit from more widespread insurance coverage, said Paula Greaves, MD, an ob-gyn in Marietta, Ga. Dr. Greaves said her obstetric patient population is about 63% Latino and 67% uninsured. Beyond the possibility of increasing her collection rate if more patients were insured, Dr. Greaves said a higher insured rate would also make patients more likely to go for diagnostic tests or procedures they now skip because of an inability to pay.

"Managed care is better than nothing," she said.

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Growing minority

As the largest minority group, Hispanics account for just less than one-third of the uninsured population of 47 million in the United States.

Total uninsured: 47 million

Hispanic uninsured: 15 million

Percentage of U.S. population uninsured: 15%

Percentage of Hispanic population uninsured: 33%

Hispanics are the largest minority group in 22 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2006

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