Health & Medicine

Last push for health care coverage

The Osborn family – from right, Parrish, Tanin and Manuela – signs up for Covered California insurance at Sacramento Covered on Saturday. The deadline to sign up for health insurance is midnight Sunday.
The Osborn family – from right, Parrish, Tanin and Manuela – signs up for Covered California insurance at Sacramento Covered on Saturday. The deadline to sign up for health insurance is midnight Sunday. bnguyen@sacbee.com

Midnight marks the end of the second annual open enrollment period for health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly called “Obamacare.” People trying to sign up this weekend through the state’s health care exchange, Covered California, had mixed experiences in the last-minute rush.

Some found frustration. Others sailed through. A lot depended on how they went about it.

On Friday and Saturday, those who went to the offices of Sacramento Covered, an enrollment assistance agency near Watt Avenue and Folsom Boulevard in Sacramento, reported short wait times and speedy enrollments. The group saw about 60 clients each day.

Larry Roberts, 55, of south Sacramento said a friend’s experience had persuaded him to go to Sacramento Covered and “get it done correctly.” The whole process, including wait time and filling out pre-appointment paperwork, took Roberts about 30 minutes. Enrolling in a health plan with the assistance of counselor Vue Yang took about 15 minutes, he said.

“It’d take me longer to boot up my computer,” Roberts said, smiling.

Others who searched for “storefront” locations listed on the Covered California website ended up up lost and confused because the counselors were tucked away in “collectives” of small startup businesses and nonprofit agencies. A table at the crowded Sweet Potato Festival in the Meadowview neighborhood Saturday was hard to find amid the commotion and wasn’t doing much business.

Covered California spokesman Dana Howard said this year saw a big push to open hundreds of storefront locations where people could meet with trained counselors, but “something we have to take a look at going forward is to how to improve the visibility of the storefronts so more people will be able to see them and recognize them immediately,” he said.

Howard recommended using Covered California’s search tools for storefronts, enrollment events, certified counselors and insurance agents – then calling ahead to make an appointment and get directions. The website is www.coveredca.com, and the search functions are listed under the “Get Help” tab at the top right.

Covered California had a goal of enrolling 500,000 new residents this year, in addition to the 1 million-plus who signed up for health plans last year. The agency said Saturday that more than 25,000 people enrolled on Friday, bringing this year’s total to about 415,000.

Howard said the group’s website – which was overwhelmed during last year’s crush to enroll – was working much better this year, and he hadn’t heard any complaints from users.

Phone lines, too, also got jammed up last year. Some users this year reported getting a recorded message saying the call center was experiencing high volume, then disconnecting.

Howard acknowledged phone lines were busy at times, but said callers who were patient could get through even if took up to an hour. Expecting to get immediate help during the last weekend of enrollment wasn’t realistic, he said.

“It’s like calling the IRS on April 15th and expecting to get through in two minutes,” he said.

Those who at least start the process with an insurance agent or certified counselor have until Friday to complete it, he said.

At Sacramento Covered, program manager Lorena Sanchez said the group will have its full staff of 20 counselors on hand Sunday . Many speak Spanish and others are fluent in Hmong, Russian, Ukrainian and Punjabi.

The group’s offices are open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. , she said. Last year there were 100 people lined up waiting to enroll on the last day of open enrollment, and counselors had to use paper applications because Covered California’s website had crashed.

Sanchez said she hopes that won’t happen again.

Sacramento Covered is at 8928 Volunteer Lane – just off Highway 50 and next to the Watt/Manlove light-rail station. The phone number is (916) 414-8333.

Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191. Follow him on Twitter @Hudson_Sangree. Bee staff writer Loretta Kalb contributed to this report.

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