You've heard about the achievement gap, the wide disparity in educational performance between disadvantaged minorities and the rest of the student population.

Now comes the insurance gap, and in California it's playing out most notably in the number of Latinos and Asian-Americans signing up for private health plans under the new health care law.

Of the nearly 700,000 people who enrolled in a health plan as of Feb. 28 through the Covered California health insurance exchange and identified their ethnicity, 23.1 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander. Twenty-two percent were Latino.

But the statistics are startling when you consider that Latinos make up 38.2 percent of California's population and Asians just 13.7 percent.

Donald Kagan, of San Ramon, a certified insurance counselor assists Lisa Tapia, of Fremont, from left, during a Covered California enrollment session at
Donald Kagan, of San Ramon, a certified insurance counselor assists Lisa Tapia, of Fremont, from left, during a Covered California enrollment session at the main library in Fremont, Calif., Saturday, March 22, 2014. Bilingual counselors were on hand to assist applicants. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

"It's the only thing that has been surprising to us so far -- the higher Asian-American enrollment," said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, which worked with health policy experts at UCLA to make projections about the Obamacare rollout in California.

Experts attribute the disparity to several factors: Asians are more comfortable and more familiar with using government services, and the level of outreach by ethnic community groups on Obamacare has been much more strategic in Asian communities than in the Latino community. Also, fears about interacting with the government in Latino households with mixed immigration statuses have held down the number of Latinos signing up for health plans.

The Latino and Asian figures are also surprising because, when it comes to those determined eligible for expanded Medi-Cal, the two ethnic groups' numbers are roughly in proportion with their percentage in California's population.

African-American enrollment on the exchange also lags when compared to population numbers, but the African-American sign-up numbers are expected to meet projected targets when open enrollment ends March 31, Covered California says.

A woman waits to speak with an insurance counselor during a Covered California enrollment session at the main library in Fremont, Calif., Saturday, March
A woman waits to speak with an insurance counselor during a Covered California enrollment session at the main library in Fremont, Calif., Saturday, March 22, 2014. Bilingual counselors were on hand to assist applicants. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

The Asian-Latino disparity, however, doesn't surprise Albert Camarillo, a Stanford professor of Mexican-American studies.

"If you look at other indicators of (Latino) nonparticipation in a variety of things -- elections as an example, or naturalization rates -- they are lower than those of any ethnic group in the United States," he said.

Camarillo believes differences in education and social-class levels are the biggest reasons behind the disparity.

In California, 32 percent of Asians have a college degree, compared with 7.6 percent of Latinos. And 38 percent of Asian households earn more than $100,000, compared with 16 percent of Latino households.

Malcolm Williams, a Rand Corp. health policy researcher, said another reason for the insurance gap could be the fear of revealing personal information to the government on health insurance applications if some family members are undocumented.

Asians, on the other hand, have had a smoother path to immigration over the decades. Many have been sponsored for immigration by relatives in the U.S., or have education, employment or investment ties here that eased their quest for American citizenship. As a result, they've been able to start assimilating more quickly than many Latinos.

Henry Liem, a philosophy professor at San Jose City College and longtime observer of the South Bay's Vietnamese emigre community, said that when many immigrants were growing up in Vietnam and other Asian countries, the only way to receive government services was to pay a bribe.

But in America, he said, Asians have learned to embrace government programs that they view as nondiscriminatory, low-cost and reliable. Liem also believes the younger generation of Asians -- who tend to be well-educated, Americanized and connected online -- "are encouraging and pressuring other family members to enroll."

By contrast, only 52 percent of Latino households in California have broadband Internet access at home, compared with 69 percent of the general population. That makes it harder for families to check out health care options on Covered California's website.

Many Asian-Americans acknowledge that they're good at signing up for programs -- particularly when the government requires it.

"That's very true," said Larry Loo, a first-generation Chinese-American who is the director of business development and operations at the San Francisco-based Chinese Community Health Plan.

"It's a borderline stereotype, but we follow the rules," he said. "We are compliant."

Doreena Wong, a director of the health access project for Los Angeles-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said that like many Latino immigrants, many Asian immigrants don't speak English. But what has helped drive up the Asian health care numbers, Wong said, is a carefully targeted, concentrated effort that has been coordinated with a variety of Asian groups around the state.

Covered California officials have acknowledged their marketing and enrollment strategies aimed at Latinos weren't as sharply focused as they needed to be. A Spanish language paper application, for example, first became available on Dec. 30, three months after open enrollment started.

"I think everyone would say that they laid an egg on this one," said David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Norm Matloff, a UC Davis computer science professor, said the success of Asian-American enrollments is a replay of what he discovered two decades ago.

A liberal Democrat who speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin and whose wife is a Hong Kong immigrant, the Walnut Creek resident has been immersed in the Chinese immigrant community for decades.

In a 1993 groundbreaking study, Matloff showed that despite their "model minority" image and political conservatism, 55 percent of elderly Chinese were on welfare, mostly Supplemental Security Income. Among elderly Vietnamese immigrants, the figure was 74 percent, compared to 21 percent of Mexican immigrants and 9 percent of native-born elderly.

"The reason for the (enrollment) discrepancy is simple," Matloff said last week. "Asian community-based organizations are extremely efficient at promoting government services."

Database producer Danny Willis contributed to this report. Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-920-5343. Follow her at Twitter.com/taseipel.