California’s new health insurance exchange enrolled more than 35,000 people during its first month of operation, or one-third of the 106,000 people enrolled nationwide, according to federal government figures released Wednesday, which covered the period from Oct. 1 to Nov. 2.
When compared against the 36 states which have elected not to set up their own exchanges and instead rely solely on the troubled website healthcare.gov, California’s enrollments dwarf that of all those states — combined. In the 36 states, about 27,000 people have enrolled. Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama’s secretary of health and human services released the numbers in a press conference.
But later Wednesday afternoon, Covered California held a press event of its own and released data up to Tues., Nov. 12 – bringing total enrollees to about 59,000 people.
Momentum appears to be building. On average, about 1,000 people enrolled in Covered California every day in October, but in the first 12 days of November, average enrollments exceeded 2,400 a day.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said he was “very pleased with the numbers.” He also said he expected momentum to continue, as the Dec. 15 deadline for coverage that starts Jan. 1 approaches. “The four-week period from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15 is going to be big enrollment,” he predicted.
In addition to the people who have selected a health plan, another 72,007 people were found to be eligible for Medi-Cal, the state’s version of Medicaid, with coverage starting on Jan. 1.
Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a consumer advocacy group, said the increasing rate of enrollment suggests “that there’s a trend line that’s going up.” Still, he said the numbers do not necessarily show success or failure. Rather, “they’re a sign of where we need to do additional work. We need to redouble our marketing efforts and training of counselors to enroll people.”
Consumers can shop on the Covered California website or talk to trained staff directly at call centers or at many social service agencies. Insurance brokers are becoming certified to enroll people through Covered California. Lee said there are currently about 6,000 brokers certified, but he expects 20,000 insurance agents in total will be certified by the end of November.
In addition to the Dec. 15 deadline, the other big date for Covered California is March 31, 2014, when open enrollment ends. Lee said that Covered California “forecasts” enrollment of between 500,000 and 700,000 people eligible for subsidies. While 75 percent of the people who signed up in October were not eligible for subsidies, Lee referred to October as an “anomalous month" because it was the first month.
By comparison, when Massachusetts was implementing its own version of health care reform in 2007, the first month of sign-ups was also pretty anomalous. Just 123 people signed up – about 0.3 percent of the total number who enrolled by the end of open enrollment.
Some information critically missing from Wednesday’s release was any detail on demographics, especially age of enrollees. Covered California needs to enroll young, healthy people in order to spread risk and keep premiums from spiking next year. Lee said some of that data will be released at the Nov. 21 Covered California board meeting.
Wright cautioned against reading too much into initial breakdowns on enrollees. “The people who were the sickest would sign up the quickest,” he said. “They are the ones desperately waiting for coverage. We would expect that the younger folks will be signing up later, just because they may feel the urgency a little bit less.”
Covered California also released survey data from users on Wednesday. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they found Covered California’s enrollment process “easy to complete,” and 88 percent said they “were able to choose a health plan that is right for them.”
Right off the bat at the press conference, Lee said those were “two of my favorite numbers.”
Covered California is using that kind of feedback to differentiate itself from the problem-plagued healthcare.gov website. “We’re changing our marketing,” Lee said. “We’re running radio ads that say, ‘We don’t know what you’ve heard, but the IT system is working great. You can enroll in 15 minutes.’”
Lee said the website is “constantly being improved” and that it will be offline for two days this weekend while changes are being made.
This post has been updated with detail from the Covered California press conference.