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AP California News

Dec 17, 3:33 PM EST

Health care exchange sign-ups exceeding last year



SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California's health care exchange has exceeded last year's insurance sign-ups during its first month of open enrollment as it nears a deadline for coverage to begin Jan. 1, Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said Wednesday.

More people chose a plan in the first month than in the first two months of open enrollment last year. More than 144,000 residents have selected Covered California plans this year on the marketplace, which was created as part of President Barack Obama's health care reform law. That compares with about 109,000 from October through November 2013.

The exchange is on pace to beat its goal of enrolling 1.7 million people for private health coverage next year, including re-enrolling 1.1 million people who signed up the first season, Lee said in a conference call with reporters.

"These numbers are incredibly strong and bode well for California," he said.

More than 592,000 residents have been deemed eligible for private health insurance or Medi-Cal, California's version of Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor and those with lower incomes. That includes more than 216,000 enrollments and nearly 75,000 deemed likely to be eligible for Medi-Cal coverage. Medi-Cal, which is open for enrollment year round, has enrolled more than 2.2 million consumers this year.

More people may be signing up because they are more comfortable now with a law that "has been a little bit of a political football," said Nicole Kasabian Evans, a spokeswoman for the California Association of Health Plans, which represents health insurance companies.

"We now have a proven track record after a year, so those who might have hesitated in year one are ready to jump in," she said. "People got their care, they could go to the doctors, they got their coverage. It has been delivering."

The exchange extended a deadline to Sunday for consumers to get new insurance or change insurance plans in time for coverage to take effect with the new year.

On Monday alone, the previous deadline, more than 25,000 people completed enrollment, Lee said. The goal is to get help in particular for the more than 157,000 who completed the application process and were deemed eligible, but who must select an insurance plan this week for their coverage to begin Jan. 1.

The open enrollment period for the coming year continues through Feb. 15.

The exchange for the first time is letting consumers pay their first month's premium as soon as they sign up. More than half of new sign-ups are choosing that option, which Lee said avoids some of the confusion and uncertainty of last year.

"Their coverage will be up and live without even having to wait for a bill," he said.

Key to gauging the program's success will be the number of consumers who re-enroll, although Lee said that information won't be available until next month.

Demographic breakdowns also will be available next month, but Lee said there has been strong interest in the Latino community. Officials are spreading the word that immigration status information gathered as part of the insurance process will be confidential, he said.

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