Covered California, State's Obamacare Marketplace, Now Open; Has First Enrollee

Covered California executive director Peter Lee speaking to advocates and reporters in San Francisco Tuesday morning. (Angela Hart/KQED)
Covered California executive director Peter Lee speaking to advocates and reporters in San Francisco Tuesday morning. (Angela Hart/KQED)

California's health heavy-hitters formally opened the state's health insurance marketplace, Covered California, Tuesday morning from its call center in Rancho Cordova. The federal government partial shutdown does not affect these health care exchanges nationwide.

"Covered California is officially open for business," said Covered California executive director Peter Lee. "We stand with thousands of Californians across the state as we kick off our effort to help educate and enroll millions of currently uninsured Californians."

At 8:46 a.m., Covered California tweeted that one person is now formally on board:

In theory, people who want to enroll can visit the Covered California website and click on the yellow box "Start Here." But in practice, the online sign-up is not loading (at least not for me, right now). People can also call to get information and enroll. The Covered California number is 1-800-300-1506

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At a late morning press event in San Francisco, Lee explained why some people might be experiencing delays: Covered California is getting 10,000 hits every second, he said. (UPDATE 6pm: Covered California released corrected numbers. Lee misspoke at the event. Peak web traffic Tuesday was 16,000 hits per minute.)

Here's more background from AP:

Under the federal law, consumers who have previously been rejected for private insurance because of a pre-existing condition will be able to enroll, and those who cannot afford to buy their own insurance can receive government-subsidized premiums.

"I think it's hard to overstate how big a change this is: People will no longer pay based on how sick they are, but on what they can afford based on a percentage of income. That's a transformational change in the way health care works," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, which has advocated for greater health care coverage for the poor.

The Affordable Care Act will dramatically change the way many Americans will get health insurance and marks the most extensive change to the nation's health care system since Medicare and Medicaid became law in 1965.

California is being seen as a laboratory for the health care overhaul, and call center workers have been training for months to answer questions. The three call centers — in Concord, Fresno and the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova — already have been flooded with calls.

Latinos, who make up nearly half of the 5.3 million uninsured Californians who are eligible to apply, have been expressing particular interest, said Santiago Lucero, a spokesman for Covered California. Lawfully present immigrants are eligible for the same benefits as citizens, but undocumented immigrants are not. They may not even buy insurance at Covered California with their own money.

Despite the significance of Tuesday's opening, officials do not expect a wave of applications immediately because comparing the available plans and filling out the application will be time-consuming.

"There are four different levels of health plans, and then within each level there are 12 different companies," to choose from, Lucero said. "They have to pick which would best fit their financial and health needs. ... It may take some time before they make a decision."

Beginning in 2014, virtually all Americans will be required to have health insurance or pay an annual penalty to the government. The penalty for an individual starts at $95 in 2014 but rises to a minimum of $695 by 2016.

Californians who have health coverage through an employer will be largely unaffected by Tuesday's opening of the exchange, which is primarily for the poor, low-income earners, and individuals and families who already buy their own health insurance.

Actual coverage through insurance purchased on the exchanges will start Jan. 1.

[Related: Your Questions Answered Obamacare Explained — A Guide for Californians]