California exchange draws heavy interest

Covered California contact center workers handled 17,000 phone calls by 3 p.m. Tuesday. (AP photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Covered California contact center workers handled 17,000 phone calls by 3 p.m. Tuesday. (AP photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Thousands of Californians seeking to buy their own health insurance flooded call centers with questions and overloaded the state's online marketplace Tuesday.

Dozens of workers at a call center in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova began fielding calls after a countdown to the 8 a.m. opening of the health exchange. The agency that runs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange, Covered California, said it received 1 million hits on the website during the first 90 minutes after the exchange opened. By 3 p.m., the site had received 5 million hits and the two service centers had received 17,000 phone calls.

"We are here in California on the right side of history," Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said during a news event in the Rancho Cordova call center, one of three in the state.

He said Tuesday was just the starting point, and it was evident that exchange officials had work to do after the website and phone system were hit with a crush of inquiries.

While no major glitches were immediately reported, the site was slow to load once users clicked on a tab that said "Start Here." Officials had predicted delays on the first day and said many would merely be seeking information rather than signing up for coverage, which begins in the new year.

"Like anything when you first start, you've got to adjust a little bit," said Pat Macht, a spokeswoman for Covered California. "The system's not been down, but it might have had some slower response time. But people are signing up."

The agency later said the enrollment section of the website would be down from 9 p.m. Tuesday until early Wednesday to "optimize performance." An agency spokesman, Roy Kennedy, said he did not have details about what work would be done to the site.

The glitches did not dissuade Rachel Mansfield, 33, of La Quinta, who has been waiting for the exchange to start so she and her husband can get health insurance. She eventually downloaded an enrollment form to mail in manually.

"We're just trying to get signed up as quickly as possible," said Mansfield, a self-employed esthetician whose parents currently pay a $530 monthly premium for her coverage through the state's high-risk pool.

She said her husband, an assistant golf pro, has been rejected for health coverage because he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Mansfield said the online calculator indicated that the monthly premium will be around $400 for both of them, with more thorough coverage than she currently has.

"It's been a long time coming. I'm hoping it works out the way that it's supposed to," she said.

Gov. Jerry Brown, meanwhile, announced he had signed a package of bills to help implement the new law and expand the state's Medi-Cal program for those who are too poor to pay for the subsidized insurance.

"While extreme radicals in Washington shut down our government, here in California we're taking action to extend decent health care to millions of families," Brown said in a statement, referring to the impasse in Congress that has led to a partial shutdown of federal government operations.

California officials said the shutdown had no effect on the state exchange.

Some 5.3 million Californians are eligible to apply for coverage under President Barack Obama's health law, known as "Obamacare," about 1.4 million of them through expanded access to the state's health insurance program for the poor, Medi-Cal.

The first completed health insurance application was taken at 8:04 a.m., said Carene Carolan, deputy director of the Rancho Cordova service center.

"We are getting a huge, huge volume of calls," she said.

Officials said figures on how many people enrolled would not be available until Nov. 15, as agents need time to process and approve the applications.

A part of the PPACA exchange designed for small business owners to buy insurance did not open online Tuesday but is expected to be ready in mid-November.

Covered California spokesman Ken Wood said small-business owners can already compare plans and get quotes starting Tuesday.

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