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Mar 5, 5:28 PM EST

State sees higher minority, youth sign-ups for health plan



SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California did a better job of enrolling more minorities and young people for health care coverage during the second year of expansion, but a shortfall in overall enrollment could lead to increased fees in the future, according to new state data released Thursday.

Covered California released enrollment figures showing the percentage of Latinos and African-American enrollees increased from last year. The state also reported a younger mix of new enrollees, which ensures a good risk pool for insurers.

Covered California reported that Latinos made up 37 percent of new enrollees, compared to 31 percent last year. The share of new black enrollees increased slightly from 3 percent in 2014 to 4 percent this year.

Young adults ages 18 to 34 gained 5 percentage points from 29 percent of new enrollees last year to 34 percent this year.

"This is good news," Executive Director Peter Lee told board members Thursday.

Lee said Covered California's increased advertising and person-to-person outreach has resulted in younger Latinos and African-American's signing up.

Covered California generally has been regarded as a success, but the agency had been criticized for its lackluster sign-up of Latinos the first year. In response, the exchange increased its marketing through Spanish-language media and targeted its second campaign to reach out to minority communities.

California signed up a total of 1.4 million people during the second enrollment season from Nov. 15 through Feb. 15. That figure fell 300,000 short of the state's goal to sign up 1.7 million people.

Despite strong enrollment of new enrollees, the state's overall enrollment was down because fewer people renewed than expected. For example, the agency noted that it saw a lower-than-anticipated number of people who signed up during special enrollment, such as when people lose their jobs or transition out of Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program for the poor.

"We are troubled by the low special enrollment," said Beth Capell, a lobbyist with Health Access California. "We do think there's considerably more work to do on transitioning people from Medi-Cal to Covered California. We think this is one of the challenges the two organizations face over the next year or two."

The overall enrollment figure is critical to financing Covered California, which can make adjustments by reducing spending, tapping reserves or increasing monthly plan fees. The federal government infused billions of dollars to help states get their health insurance marketplaces up and running, but exchanges are supposed to be self-sustaining by imposing a fee on the plans they sell.

California imposes a monthly surcharge of $13.95 on individual plans and the staff has recommended maintaining that rate. However, the exchange could raise rates in the future in order to maintain a balanced budget. By law, the state exchange is prevented from tapping the state's general fund, which is supported by taxpayers.

Also Thursday, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown named two administrators to replace appointments by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Susan Kennedy, a Democrat who worked as Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, and Kimberly Belshe, who served as Schwarzenegger's health and human services secretary, had agreed to stay after their terms expired last year until Brown named replacements to the five-member board.

Brown named Genoveva Islas, program director at the Public Health Institute's Cultiva La Salud, and Marty Morgenstern, a long-time state official who is currently serving as a senior adviser to the governor. Both are Democrats.

The Senate has yet to name a replacement for Dr. Robert Ross, president and chief executive officer of The California Endowment, who resigned last year due to a heavy work and travel schedule.

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