The ceremonial switch was thrown Tuesday morning around 8 a.m., and Covered California was open for business. By 3 p.m., officials reported the Covered California website had received 5 million hits, averaging 5,000 per minute, and call center wait times were 20-30 minutes. Roughly 17,000 people called in to Covered California service centers by 3 p.m.*
Covered California is the state's new health insurance marketplace, established as part of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.
Call centers in California — and nationwide — have been jammed.
Lines weren't just long on the phone either. There was a sign-up event at Merritt College in Oakland Tuesday afternoon for community college students. KQED writer Ryder Diaz reported long wait times; students were having to leave and go to class.
While today has been a very busy day, people do still have time to enroll. For insurance that will take effect Jan. 1, Californians need to enroll by Dec. 15.
At a press event Tuesday morning, Covered California executive director Peter Lee struck an almost-euphoric note.
"This is the day where millions of people's dreams are going to come true," Lee said. "This is a day when a hundred years of efforts by Republicans going back to Teddy Roosevelt, to Democrats like Teddy Kennedy, have been working to change America to make health care a right, not a privilege."
Going forward, in California, rates may only be set according to three factors: your age, where you live and number of people in your family. No longer can your health status be taken into account or can you be turned down for health insurance because of a preexisting condition.
KQED's Mina Kim spoke with Lisa Aliferis about Covered California's big day.
Not everyone is affected
If you currently have job-based insurance or if you're on Medicare or Medi-Cal, nothing about your situation is going to change. But if you're buying your own insurance, Covered California is a new marketplace for you. It's estimated that half the people in California buying insurance right now will be eligible for subsidies, and many of the uninsured will be eligible for subsidies as well.
Covered California needs a mix of people
It's really important that Covered California has a mix of people entering its marketplace. Not just the sick people who have been denied insurance, but also healthy people, because the company needs to spread the risk around. If Covered California gets only sick people, then a year from now, insurance premiums could go up.
Covered California is reaching out to young, healthy people, and the more people that enroll, the bigger the pool, the more likely it is that Californians have reasonable premiums going forward.
And if you're thinking, "Well, this doesn't really matter to me," you have to take a step back and think: If you lost your job-based insurance, and found yourself on the individual marketplace, you would want insurance premiums that you can afford.
Covered California officials told me they would release some early enrollment numbers next week. As soon as we have the numbers, we'll share them.
Sign up deadline comes later this year
There's a finite enrollment period. It started Tuesday and runs through March 31 — to sign up for insurance that will be in effect through 2014. If you want health insurance on Jan. 1, you need to sign up by Dec. 15. After that, you must sign up by the 15th of the month and insurance will take effect the first of the following month, until March 31, when the door closes on the open-enrollment period.
In a press release early Tuesday evening, Covered California said it would take down the enrollment section of its website at 9 p.m. Tuesday until "early Wednesday. This will help optimize performance" for people logging on in the future, the release said.
*Correction: Earlier, KQED reported that Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said Covered California's website received 10,000 hits a second. Later, Covered California reported the site at the peak received 16,000 page views per minute.