California's health insurance exchange: 5 things to watch in December

Like many retailers, California's health insurance exchange is banking on a rush of December shoppers.

California has already signed up nearly 80,000 people in private health plans and 135,000 more in Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program. But crunch time starts now as deadlines approach.

People have until Dec. 23 to sign up for coverage that takes effect Jan. 1. Open enrollment runs through March 31.

Here are five key issues to watch this month:

1. Can California handle an even bigger surge?

Enrollment numbers in the Covered California exchange have been accelerating, and supporters of the healthcare law urged families to discuss Obamacare over Thanksgiving turkey.

Experts say the Monday after Thanksgiving has traditionally been the busiest time for Medicare open enrollment, so a flood of applicants is likely.

California's exchange website has experienced far fewer problems than the error-prone site. State officials also took their online enrollment system down for two days recently for upgrades.

2. Can people who got cancellation notices find new coverage in time?

Coverage is running out Dec. 31 for more than 1 million Californians who have individual policies that don't meet all the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The state exchange rejected President Obama's recent call to let those policyholders hold on to their coverage another year.

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Covered California launched a hot line at (855) 857-0445 to help those consumers understand their options.

Many will end up paying less thanks to federal premium subsidies based on their income.  But the exchange estimates about half of the people losing coverage will pay more for replacement policies.

3. Will people be able to get through by phone?

As calls and applications have increased in recent weeks, so has the average wait time at Covered California.

People calling the exchange in October waited less than six minutes, on average. In November, that grew to nearly 25 minutes one week and 18 minutes most recently.

The state has added a third call center in Fresno, and it expects to have roughly 560 people answering calls overall by early December.

4. Does a shortage of enrollment counselors hurt the state?

California has been running behind at getting enrollment counselors in place to assist consumers in person.

It had 1,836 certified counselors as of Nov. 23 and 4,307 more people are still waiting to get through the process.

The state has made more progress certifying insurance agents who can help enroll people. Nearly 7,500 agents have completed state training.

5. Will the exchange do a better job reaching Latinos?

Amid solid enrollment during the first seven weeks, one group that was conspicuously absent were Latinos.

Only 3% of California's October enrollment, or less 1,000 people, were primarily Spanish speakers. Overall, that group is 29% of California's population and a key target for the state's $80-million marketing campaign.

The exchange expects enrollment among Latinos to pick up as more Spanish-speaking enrollment counselors reach out in the community and more Spanish advertising blankets the airwaves.


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