California may be at the forefront of implementing Obamacare, but it still has a mountain to climb informing people that they're eligible for the subsidized or free benefits that are a key part of making the controversial law work, a new Field Poll shows.

With enrollment in the state's new health-insurance exchange beginning Oct. 1, fewer than half of Californians whose income, age and insurance status qualify them for coverage benefits under the health care reforms knew of their eligibility when the poll was conducted this summer.

Less than half of low-income voters eligible to receive free health coverage next year under the expanded Medi-Cal program knew they're eligible. And only one in three moderate-income voters who aren't covered under an employer, union or government heatlh care program knew that they're entitled to tax credits to reduce their insurance costs.

Those are daunting figures as the government and private organizations ramp up more than $300 million worth of aggressive public-education campaigns to get those eligible for benefits to apply.

"The groups that they're after have very low awareness," Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said. "So they have their work cut out for them."

But officials at Covered California, the insurance exchange, seem confident that millions will sign up and that the exchange will be ready for prime time.

"Beginning in September, you will see an ad campaign" that will grow to massive proportions by the month's end, Covered California spokesman Santiago Lucero said Tuesday.


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At a news conference in San Jose in early June, President Barack Obama had said California's ahead-of-the-curve health insurance exchange and the aggressive outreach it planned made the state a model for the nation -- and proof that the Affordable Care Act can work.

Lucero said the agency has held its fire over the summer because "we have a limited amount of dollars that we need to spend wisely," but a blitz of television, radio, newspaper, magazine, billboard and transit ads is expected to reach a tremendous number of Californians in the final weeks before enrollment begins.

Those who make less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level -- about $45,960 for an individual and $94,200 for a family of four -- will be eligible for subsidies through Covered California. About 2.6 million Californians are expected to qualify.

And those who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level -- an estimated 1.4 million Californians -- will become eligible beginning on Jan. 1 for Medi-Cal, the joint state and federal health-insurance program for low-income residents.

Two out of three California voters are optimistic that the state will successfully implement the Affordable Care Act. And similar majorities believe it will meet more specific goals such as reducing the number of uninsured people, giving people more insurance options and providing better consumer protection. However, there's a deep partisan split here -- Democrats are very upbeat about what the reforms will accomplish while Republicans are much more skeptical.

More than 61 percent of California's uninsured are Latino. Covered California; the California Endowment, a private, statewide health foundation; and Spanish-language media outlets Univision, Telemundo and impreMedia have joined forces to launch a $130 million public education blitz to inform Latinos about Obamacare and urge them to buy health insurance.

Meanwhile, the state could see more than $174 million in federal spending to inform people of the new reforms.

Most Californians seem eager to learn. The Field Poll -- which surveyed 1,687 registered voters from June 26 to July 21 in seven languages with a grant from the California Wellness Foundation -- found 65 percent of voters under age 65 are interested in learning more about the health exchange and the options it offers. Interest is particularly high among the uninsured (83 percent), those who don't speak English (83 percent), African-Americans (82 percent) and Latinos (79 percent).

Isabel Salter, of Hayward, who has a 4-year-old son and whose husband is a truck driver and the family's sole breadwinner, didn't know that her household income would qualify her for benefits under the expanded Medi-Cal program until she was told during the poll. But once informed, she said she'd very likely apply.

A month after taking part in the poll, Salter, 33, said Tuesday that she still hasn't seen or heard ads about expanded benefits.

"I don't watch too much TV, but I haven't heard of anything," she said, adding that once such ads begin, the information would ripple quickly. "People are going to find out. A lot of it is word-of-mouth."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.