- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California’s health exchange announced Thursday that enrollment in private insurance plans had exceeded 1.2 million by an initial deadline earlier this week, although officials acknowledged they have more work ahead to reduce the number of people who remain uninsured.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education projected there would still be between 3.7 million and 4.5 million uninsured after the initial enrollment period. The estimates include people living in California without legal permission and who therefore do not qualify for coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.

They estimated that 5.4 million Californians were uninsured at some point in the year before the federal health care overhaul took effect.

“We do have something to celebrate, but it’s really a starting line,” Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said in a call with reporters.

The state’s preliminary figure of more than 1.2 million nearly met the Obama administration’s original target of 1.3 million. Covered California has since extended the deadline for two weeks for applicants who say they attempted to start the process before midnight Monday but were thwarted by technical problems.

Exchange officials disputed the projection for California enrollment that the White House has been using all along, including this week when President Barack Obama hailed the 7.1 million enrollees nationwide. Instead, Lee said the state had set a lower bar, originally projecting 830,000 enrollees by the deadline.

Covered California serves as the main portal for finding individual health coverage in California. Monday was the initial deadline for people to access subsidized insurance in the private market, but lower-income people can apply year-round for Medicaid, the safety net program known as Medi-Cal in California.

Toby Douglas, director of the state’s Department of Health Care Services, has estimated that more than 1.5 million people who initially sought insurance through the exchange have been determined to be likely eligible for Medi-Cal or were transitioned from other programs.

About half the states, including California, opted to expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal health care law.

Darrin Montalvo, president of integrated services at St. Joseph Health, a health system based in Orange County and Northern California, said it’s too early to tell the impact of the federal overhaul on reducing the number of uninsured. According to the California HealthCare Foundation, California had more uninsured residents than any other state and a high percentage of them are under age 65 because fewer workers are getting coverage through work.

“The information is just starting to flow out to the providers and when people start accessing care, we’ll really see the impact of the additional coverage,” Montalvo said.

In California and in most other states, a crush of procrastinating consumers flooded call-center phone lines and bogged down state online marketplaces ahead of the deadline. A software problem with the federal government website, which operates in 36 states but not in California, temporarily prevented new users from creating accounts.

For a while on Monday, Covered California listed a wrong phone number, sending hearing-impaired callers to a “hot ladies” hotline, as first reported by CBS13-TV in Sacramento. The telephone number was one digit off and corrected that day.

Lee applauded the state’s performance and “the outpouring of community support” despite periodic problems with the website, hour-long hold times and extended lines at community enrollment sites.

Lee said the number of people getting coverage will continue to improve and that state officials plan to provide an update after the April 15 extension deadline. Of the 1.2 million people who had enrolled by Monday’s deadline, more than 450,000 completed their applications during the last month.

Covered California reported that more than 500,000 people who started an account are getting extra time to complete their applications.

The latest enrollment figure counts people who completed their application and selected an insurance plan, but it’s up to the consumers to pay their premiums to actually get the health coverage. An estimated 85 percent of those who sign up are expected to pay their premiums, Lee said.

State exchange officials said they believe their outreach campaign was effective at targeting various ethnic and demographic groups. They said a higher-than-expected proportion of Latinos and young people between 18 and 34 signed up in the final days before Monday’s initial deadline.

State Sen. Norma Torres, D-Pomona, said there remains a disproportionately higher number of uninsured Latinos. She has a bill that seeks to diversify and expand the health exchange board from five to seven members.

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