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Californians Continuing To Flock To New Insurance Exchange

Enrollment in California’s new health insurance marketplace is picking up speed, with more than 156,000 signed up for coverage through last week, officials announced Thursday.

Peter Lee (Photo by Heidi de Marco/KHN)

Nearly a third of the enrollees – 49,700 – ­­­ completed their applications during the first week of December.

“The momentum is very positive,” Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said during a press conference in Los Angeles. “That momentum is not stopping. It’s building.”

In California, one of 14 states and the District of Columbia to operate its own insurance exchange, enrollment has gone smoothly compared to the initially troubled rollout of federally run exchanges in 36 other states.  Accounting for about a third of sign-ups nationally as of last month, the state is considered key to the success of the Affordable Care Act.

People who want coverage starting Jan. 1 should sign up by Dec. 23. Lee said he expected a surge in enrollments before the deadline, and pledged that his staff would be working overtime to process applications.

He stressed that consumers must pay their first premium for the coverage to be effective.

Even if consumers miss the first deadline, Lee said, they can continue to sign up until the end of open enrollment on March 31.

Through the insurance marketplace, consumers whose incomes fall under 400 percent of federal poverty level – about $46,000 for an individual – may be eligible for premium subsidies.

Lee said that 21  percent of the enrollees so far are between the ages of 18 and 34, on par with their share of the population. This group is critical to balance out the older and often sicker consumers who have been waiting to get insurance.

But he said the exchange still is trying to do a better job getting Spanish speakers signed up. Less than 5% of the enrollees speak Spanish primarily, even though they represent about 29 percent of the general population.

Lee said he plans to evaluate the exchange’s marketing with an eye toward more effectively reaching those who speak other languages.

About 96 percent of those enrolled during the first two months chose one of four plans – Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente and Health Net.

Toby Douglas, head of the state’s Department of Health Care Services, said that in addition to enrollees in Covered California plans, about 108,000 people were determined to be eligible for Medi-Cal, which serves poorer consumers.

The Blue Shield Foundation of California supports KHN coverage of California.