SACRAMENTO (AP) — The initial enrollment period for getting subsidized coverage may have passed, but California's health insurance exchange is offering a two-week extension to accommodate the crush of last-minute applicants.
Consumers who were unable to create an account or start their application because of technical problems have until midnight on April 15 to finish their applications. Covered California spokesman Dana Howard said Tuesday that the exchange is urging people to contact service representatives, enrollment counselors or certified insurance agents for help.
The agency offered the extension after its systems were overwhelmed by the number of people trying to sign up before Monday's enrollment deadline under President Barack Obama's health-reform law.
More than 1.2 million people had enrolled before the deadline.
Health care advocates said people have other opportunities to enroll if they missed the deadline. For example, low-income uninsured people can apply year-round for Medicaid, the safety net program known as Medi-Cal in California. People with life-changing events, including having a baby, losing their job or getting a divorce, also can enroll through Covered California.
Consumers also can buy insurance policies directly from agents or insurers, but they would not get the government subsidies offered on the exchange.
"The end of open enrollment is not the end of opportunities to get the coverage Californians need when they need it," Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, said in a statement.
Covered California plans to provide an updated enrollment figure on Thursday.
California's experience Monday was similar to that in many other states, where a crush of procrastinating consumers flooded call-center phone lines and bogged down state online marketplaces. A software problem with the federal government website, which operates in 36 states but not in California, temporarily prevented new users from creating accounts.
Covered California initially turned off the "preview plan" feature on the website to reduce congestion. The agency's executive director, Peter Lee, said consumers who start the enrollment process would be asked to return and finish their application later, when there is less traffic.
Yet as the day wore on, it became apparent that some consumers could not even begin their application process, prompting state officials to announce the new policy that effectively extends the sign-up deadline for two weeks.
Lee acknowledged that people could enroll for health insurance over the next two weeks even if they did not experience technical problems on the Covered California website during Monday's deadline day rush.
"People can lie about their reason," Lee said Monday evening during a conference call with reporters to explain the deadline extension. "It is an honor system."
Insurance agents who are certified to sell policies through the state exchange have been facing the same technical problems as consumers, said Neil Crosby, vice president of public affairs at the California Association of Health Underwriters. But agents are able to work behind the scene, such as filing paper applications, and can avoid being on hold for hours, as some customers have been when trying to get help through the Covered California call centers.
"Most of them are frustrated because the same technical issues that are facing the consumers are facing the agents, as well," Crosby said. "But they're trying to hang in."
There's now greater pressure on Covered California to get its system running at optimal speed.
"If the technical problems get fixed, the two-week (extension) could be enough time," Crosby said. "If agents are not able to get into the Covered California system and work within the system to try and get these consumers enrolled, then two months wouldn't be enough."
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