California sees late surge in health enrollment

AP Photo/Jon Elswick

AP Photo/Jon Elswick

California is seeing a late surge in the number of people signing up for health insurance coverage ahead of next week's deadline — and state officials are encouraging more people to apply.

The state already reported surpassing 1 million enrollees. But Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said Friday that another 80,000 people enrolled in the past four days alone.

“We are in this flurry and frenzy of open-enrollment period,” said Lee, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone after a news event in the Los Angeles area.

Covered California is partnering with unions, community groups and health advocates to hold sign-up events across the state in a final campaign to help people get subsidized health coverage. More than 100 community events are planned this weekend.

Monday marks this year's open-enrollment deadline, but consumers will get extra time to finish their applications. Those who start the application process by midnight Monday will have until mid-April to finish.

“Would I rather they hadn't waited until the last minute? Absolutely,” Lee said. “Am I thrilled that we're going to help them get insurance now? Also absolutely.”

People who start an application on the state's health insurance exchange by 11:59 p.m. Monday will have until April 15 to finish. The announcement comes after the Obama administration said it would allow people additional time to sign up in certain situations.

Covered California has been using radio and television ads, mailers, YouTube videos, and even marketing in barber shops and supermarkets to encourage people to sign up.

But supporters say getting help face-to-face is crucial when the process requires multiple documents such as driver's licenses, tax filings and pay stubs. As part of its final push, the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers, which represents home health-care workers, is hosting a 19-hour enrollment marathon in Los Angeles and a 17-hour sign-up session in Sacramento on Monday.

“Our union is committed to improving health care access throughout the state, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through signing up people for health insurance,” SEIU-UHW spokesman Sean Wherley said.

The state exchange is reporting a high number of enrollees, despite problems with its website and complaints about long wait times or unanswered calls for people seeking help through its service centers. Most of the enrollees, 87 percent, qualify for subsidized health coverage.

It's not clear how many of those enrollees were uninsured or how many have paid health premiums to receive coverage. But Lee said the exchange intends to be transparent and share such data in the future.

Lee also acknowledged there have been bumps in the open-enrollment period, including trouble at call centers set up to help consumers. According to Lee's latest report to the exchange board, more than half of all callers received busy signals last month and half of the callers who got through abandoned their call, meaning they may not have gotten the help they needed.

Lee said the staff is redefining that category because it doesn't account for callers who get their questions answered through pre-recorded messages.

Once they do get through, the top inquiries include resetting their website password, locating their user name, changing information on their application and billing questions.

Under President Barack Obama's health overhaul, most people will be required to have insurance or face a tax penalty, which starts as little as $95 per year but build up with time. The law is mainly geared to the uninsured and to people who buy coverage directly from insurance companies. Most Americans in employer plans are not expected to see major changes.

Since Oct. 1, uninsured middle-class Californians have been able to sign up for subsidized private health plans through the state's newly established insurance exchange. Low-income uninsured people are being steered to safety net programs like Medicaid.

Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a health-care advocacy group, said it's impressive that California has passed the 1 million benchmark, surpassing early projections and leading the nation in sign-ups.

The next open enrollment period will be from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, 2015.

Affordable Care ActCaliforniaCalifornia NewsCovered CaliforniaPeter Lee

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