SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California's health insurance exchange experienced a high volume of users Monday, overwhelming its website, swamping its call centers and leading to an extension of the enrollment deadline for consumers who were stymied by the process.
Midnight marked the enrollment deadline under President Barack Obama's health reform law. Covered California, the state's insurance exchange, reported that more than 1.2 million people have signed up for individual policies and that hundreds of thousands of accounts had been opened just in the last week.
The last-minute surge slowed the exchange's website and boosted the average wait time for those seeking help by phone to more than an hour.
"Our website is working. It's up, and it's slow," Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee told reporters in a teleconference Monday.
California's experience was similar to that in many other states, where a crush of procrastinating consumers flooded call center phone lines and bogged down the 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.
In response to the volume, state officials turned off the "preview plan" feature on the website to reduce congestion. Lee also said the exchange will ask consumers who start the enrollment process to return and finish their application later, when there is less traffic.
Late in the day, as it became apparent that some consumers could not even begin their application process, Covered California announced a new policy that effectively extends the sign-up deadline for two weeks.
Consumers who were unable to create an online account or start their online application because of technical difficulties can contact service representatives, enrollment counselors or certified insurance agents and tell them they attempted but failed to get started on March 31, the exchange said in a news release.
"We had not planned for a fourfold increase from our highest day. Because of that we, adjusted our policy to meet consumers' needs," Lee said in a later afternoon conference call with reporters.
Those consumers, along with those who were able to start the process, will have until 11:59 p.m. April 15 to complete their applications.
Although applicants can sign up online at www.coveredca.com or by phone, many came to enrollment events hosted by unions and community groups to get face-to-face help.
Michael Carradine, a 20-year-old student studying criminal justice at Sacramento State University, arrived at a registration site hosted by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers in Sacramento at 7:30 a.m. with his mother, Natividad Martin. SEIU-UHC, which represents home health care workers, also was hosting an enrollment marathon in Los Angeles.
Carradine said it was important to get a health insurance plan, but admits it was his mother who got him out of bed and encouraged him to get signed up.
"She was like, 'We don't want to be fined,'" said Carradine, who enrolled in an Anthem Blue Cross plan with a monthly premium of $106 after subsidies.
Mark Tammes, 57, a violinist with the Sacramento Philharmonic, said he stopped in early Monday after reading about the event in the newspaper. Tammes, who said he doesn't have a computer and had trouble when his girlfriend tried to help him register online, said it was much easier — and faster — to get enrolled in person.
"I really prefer to talk to someone with a pulse," Tammes said.
The Sacramento resident selected a Blue Shield plan that will cost him $55 a month after subsidies. He said he is pleased that his out-of-pocket cost for a trip to the doctor's office and generic prescriptions will be just $3.
But getting one-on-one help was frustrating, as well. Several dozen people gathered at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a mall in Los Angeles, were told they would have to wait three or four hours even though they made appointments.
Waiting patiently in the crowd was Regina Duru, 36, who lost her job as a nursing assistant. Duru was motivated to get coverage for her four children.
"I have to do this for my kids," she said.
Leonard Smalls, 28, who works part-time at a clothing store, also waited at the mall. He felt a tinge of regret for procrastinating after finding out there would be a long wait for help.
"I looked at the website but figured it would be easier to just come in person," he said.
Under the federal Affordable Care Act, most people will be required to have insurance or face a tax penalty, which starts as little as $95 per year but builds over 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. In addition to those 1.2 million Californians who have enrolled in private health plans, low-income uninsured people are being steered to Medicaid, the safety net program known as Medi-Cal in California.
Toby Douglas, director of the state's Department of Health Care Services, said Monday that more than 1.5 million poor people have been determined to be likely eligible for Medi-Cal or transitioned from other programs, increasing the number of Californians who will be insured.
Armando Olguin, 42, found out he qualified for Medi-Cal, which will provide him with health coverage for the first time in 14 years.
"It's important because we need to go to the doctor and look after our health so we can work and sustain our families," said Olguin, who works as a janitor in Sacramento.