Politics & Government

Californians sprint to beat health insurance sign-up deadline

Laura and Jose Gomez of Sacramento say they went their entire lives without health insurance.

As the federal deadline approached Monday, the parents of three were overcome with emotion after enrolling for coverage for the first time.

“We feel really good right now,” said a smiling Laura Gomez, 36, as she posed for photographs at a sign-up event hosted by a health care workers union in midtown Sacramento. She had just selected a plan through Covered California, the state’s new exchange.

The couple, who expect to pay about $300 a month after federal subsidies, were among hundreds of thousands of people nationwide rushing to beat the midnight cutoff for the health insurance overhaul. Sign-ups Monday were on track to reach 7 million nationwide, sources told The Associated Press.

In California, officials said nearly 156,000 people had signed up for coverage in the last week, bringing total enrollment to roughly 1.2 million.

Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee hailed the conclusion of the first open-enrollment period as historic, noting in a teleconference with reporters that Medi-Cal enrolled 1.5 million new members through mid-March.

“Close to 3 million Californians have signed up for coverage through either of these two programs,” Lee said. “And in addition, it doesn’t count that many, many hundreds of thousands of Californians who were not subsidy-eligible chose to sign up directly with their health plans.”

The unprecedented demand clogged call-center lines Monday and slowed to a crawl the online portal, causing some potential customers to give up and return later.

Lee said the exchange had been prepared to handle traffic exceeding its busiest day to date: a record 1.9 million page views on Dec. 23. As of 5 p.m. Monday, page views topped 7.7 million pages, quadruple the prior number.

Still, the state system appears to have fared better than the federal website, which went down twice Monday.

Nationally through last week, more than 6 million people had signed up for plans via health insurance marketplaces, and nearly 9 million were deemed eligible for Medicaid.

But the federal Healthcare.gov, plagued by early technological troubles and the frequent subject of political ire, was briefly closed to new customers on the final day. Many users were met with the message: “We need you to wait here, so we can make sure there’s room for you to have a good experience on our site.” Federal officials last week said customers having trouble would be given more time to finalize applications.

California, with its own website, was unaffected by those problems. But in a nod to the crush of interest, the exchange late Monday issued a new policy stating customers unable to create an online account or start their application would be given a 15-day extension to work with a certified enrollment professional.

Those who completed the first page of the application by midnight Monday may finish the process on their own by April 15. Paper applications were required to be postmarked by Monday.

The California exchange braced to handle as many as 1 million last-day visitors by midnight. Officials said they would place the highest priority on allowing customers to begin their applications and then return to complete them later.

Some customers received a “congratulations” note stating they had started the application but because of the high demand would not be able to finish Monday. The “preview plan” tool on the website was switched off because of lagging performance.

Although they hired 250 more people recently, exchange officials said wait times at call centers averaged 42 minutes in the last week and 70 minutes over the weekend.

“We are being swamped with huge interest,” Lee said.

State officials endeavored all along to handle 80 percent of the calls in 30 seconds or fewer, but fell far short over the full six months. Although the exchange closed with strong numbers, top officials have acknowledged the level of service was uneven and at times “completely unacceptable.”

The agency early on failed to certify enough insurance agents and was repeatedly forced to remove its provider directory following complaints about errors in the physician list. It also stumbled out of the gate in its outreach to Latinos and Spanish speakers, but since has begun to recover.

Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville, one of the foremost critics of the exchange, assailed state and federal officials for not being upfront with customers and sugarcoating their setbacks over the last few months.

“We are being told one thing and another thing is happening,” said Logue, who is running for Congress. “It’s kind of like a football game where they are cheering at halftime and we are losing 50-0.”

He pointed to the roughly 1 million Californians who were forced to select new coverage this year. Many had policies that didn’t meet the stricter standards of the health care law. It’s unclear how many of the new Covered California customers were previously uninsured or lost their plans. Logue said his office was flooded with complaints from people losing preferred plans and not being able to visit their physicians and hospitals.

The Affordable Care Act requires Americans to have insurance or pay a penalty of $95 or 1 percent of their total income, whichever is greater. The penalty increases in future years.

The law requires that plans meet minimum standards. Notably, it prevents health insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing health conditions, dropping customers from policies and setting rates based on individual health circumstances. Insurers also cannot institute lifetime caps or collect co-payments on certain preventive-care services.

With the deadline nearing, union and other groups staged massive, daylong enrollment Monday. In Oakland, Richmond, Los Angeles and Sacramento, officials from SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West hoped to enroll hundreds of new customers in health care.

By mid-morning, more than a dozen brokers and enrollment counselors stood by at the event in downtown Sacramento.

Margarita Gonzalez of Plumas Lake learned that she had qualified for Medi-Cal. Her family often timed their doctor’s office visits with trips to visit family in Mexico. “If we had to pay for Obamacare, I would have to choose between buying food and paying for insurance,” she said.

Sacramentan Ebony Pool, 34, said while two of her children are already on Medi-Cal, she was hoping to qualify for a federal subsidy that would provide her with coverage for no more than $100 a month. Within a few minutes, Pool learned that she would pay about $96 a month for a plan she wanted from Kaiser Permanente.

She chuckled as she waited to complete her application. Said Pool: “Even below what I said.”

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