On a day marked by protracted computer glitches and phone-service delays, Californians began shopping in earnest Tuesday for private health insurance under the state’s version of the Affordable Care Act.
The state formally launched its health insurance marketplace more than 31/2 years after President Barack Obama signed into law his signature legislative achievement.
Officials warned about possible technical snafus, noting that the new system requires seamless communication between state and federal government data. The website launched at 8 a.m., and four minutes later, state exchange officials reported enrolling the first applicant in health coverage.
By 9:30 a.m., the agency reported 6,500 calls to its service center. By noon, a recording on the customer service line warned of wait times exceeding 30 minutes. By 3 p.m., Covered California had logged 17,000 calls and about 5 million page views on its website.
Access wasn’t easy for everyone Tuesday.
Maura McGrath of Modesto said she waited 45 minutes on the phone before reaching a person who answered her questions. “He offered to do the application for me, but it would have taken another half an hour and I needed to go back to work,” said McGrath, who called during her lunch break. Later in the day, the Covered California website did not work well enough for her to enroll online, but she planned to try later, she said.
A landing page on the Covered California website took several minutes to load Tuesday. Clicking through to the next step brought additional delays. Janice Worthen, 28, said she started her application about 1 p.m. and wasn’t halfway finished by about 3:15 p.m. She had to refresh each page six times to get the next one to load. At one point all the data she entered disappeared and she had to start from the beginning. Most of the help links did not work. “To say my experience has been torturous would be an understatement,” said Worthen, an Alameda writer.
By 2:30 p.m., a Stanislaus County regional call center helping people enroll in Medi-Cal had handled a couple dozen calls transferred from Covered California, about one each for the 23 agents staffing the center. Covered California’s two call centers, in Rancho Cordova and Contra Costa County, apparently were too jammed to route more calls to Stanislaus.
Still, agent Theresa Gonzalez took the first call with pride, assisting a man who qualifies for Medi-Cal under the expanded eligibility. “He was happy. He did not have insurance and had been denied disability,” Gonzalez said.
Kathy Harwell, director of the county’s Community Services Agency, said she expects the Hackett Road center serving Stanislaus, Marin and Napa counties will receive more calls as kinks are worked out of Covered California’s system. Stanislaus residents can apply for Medi-Cal by calling the county’s regular service center at (877) 652-0734 or walking into CSA offices.
In Modesto, McGrath sought coverage from the state exchange to replace her family’s substandard insurance. She has employer-based coverage, but her husband and their two children are on a catastrophic plan that could require the family to pay up to $16,000 in medical costs each year, she said.
The monthly premium for a Kaiser Permanente “Silver” plan through the exchange will cost $600 to $700, about the same as their monthly cost now, but the family’s total annual deductible will be $4,000. “For the same money, we will be able to have better coverage,” McGrath said.
Covered California has been scrambling to get the word out and make more services available to online shoppers. The number of new customers is not expected to be known until Nov. 15 because of the time it takes to process applications, a spokeswoman said.
Officials acknowledged that some features of the website, including the ability for small businesses to obtain coverage, would not be available for about six weeks.
Health experts long have identified California as a key test for the changes, given its size, diversity and the high number of uninsured residents. The exchange hopes to reach about 5.3 million of the state’s 7 million uninsured. Last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation said it was embarking on a two-year research project of 2,000 uninsured Californians and the effects of the health law.
California this year unveiled lower-than-expected insurance rates, giving many potential customers time to examine the law’s effects on their finances.
The state’s 19 geographic regions have, on average, five health plans from which consumers may choose. Rates vary based on age, region, household size and coverage. Subsidies are available for individuals earning up to $46,000 and for families with incomes up to $94,200.
Melissa Arata, an agent with Epiq Risk Management in Modesto, said the business was waiting for agent agreements from Covered California to start helping customers to enroll in a county with a large uninsured population. There is no extra cost for getting enrolled through a certified broker, she said. Arata said she’s telling customers they have 2½ months to shop for a plan that meets their needs. Single adults or families need to enroll by Dec. 15 for coverage to start Jan. 1. “There is plenty of time,” Arata said.