SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Californians who buy their own health insurance and those who have been hoping for coverage began using the state's online marketplace Tuesday after it opened for business on the first day of enrollment.
Covered California website
Covered California, as the new marketplace is known, began operating at 8 a.m. with a clock countdown and a ceremonial flipping of a switch.
"For the last two years, it's been hyperbole, misinformation, disinformation," Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said during a news event in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, inside one of the state's three health exchange call centers. "Today, we start telling the real story about affordable coverage made real for Californians."
No major glitches were immediately reported on the exchange, although the site was slow to load once users clicked on a tab that said "Start Here."
Covered California reported on Twitter that it received 30,000 calls by 9:30 a.m., with 1,200 people on hold and about 4 percent abandoning the calls.
The exchange is operating in the state that is home to 15 percent of the nation's uninsured. About 5.3 million Californians will be eligible to apply for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
"This is the entire nation saying health care is a right, not a privilege," Lee said of the law.
Lee was joined at the news conference by health care advocates, state Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Diana Dooley, lawmakers who support the federal law and an official from the state's largest public employee union, which represents the call center workers.
"This is absolutely the most important piece of health legislation that this nation has ever seen," said state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Covina, an optometrist who attended the opening. "I am ecstatic. Last night, I didn't sleep very well just thinking about this."
The first completed health insurance application was taken at 8:04 a.m., just minutes after the exchange opened, said Carene Carolan, deputy director of the Rancho Cordova service center.
"We are getting a huge, huge volume of calls," she said.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," will dramatically change the way many Americans will get health insurance and marks the most extensive change to the nation's health care system since Medicare and Medicaid became law in 1965.
Under the law, consumers who have previously been rejected for private insurance because of a pre-existing condition will be able to enroll, and those who cannot afford to buy their own insurance can receive government-subsidized premiums. Annual out-of-pocket expenses will be capped, and insurance companies cannot impose a maximum lifetime benefit.
Those who already have health insurance through their employer generally will not be allowed to shop on the exchanges unless the coverage they are offered is grossly substandard and expensive.
Businesses with fewer than 50 employees also will be required to offer health insurance, although small business owners seeking to buy insurance could not do so online Tuesday and will have to wait until mid-November. Covered California spokesman Ken Wood said they could compare plans and get quotes starting Tuesday.
California is being seen as a laboratory for the nation's health care overhaul, and call center workers have been training for months to answer questions. The three call centers - in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area city of Concord, Fresno and Rancho Cordova - were flooded with calls even before Tuesday's opening.
Latinos, who make up nearly half of the 5.3 million uninsured Californians who are eligible to apply, have been expressing particular interest, said Santiago Lucero, a spokesman for Covered California. Information is available in 13 languages, but those who are in the country illegally are not eligible for coverage.
Despite the significance of Tuesday's opening, officials do not expect a wave of applications immediately because comparing the available plans and filling out the application will be time-consuming.
Beginning in 2014, virtually all Americans will be required to have health insurance or pay an annual penalty to the government. The penalty for an individual starts at $95 in 2014 but rises to a minimum of $695 by 2016.
Californians who have health coverage through an employer will be largely unaffected by Tuesday's opening of the exchange, which is primarily for the poor, low-income earners, and individuals and families who already buy their own health insurance.
Actual coverage through insurance purchased on the exchanges will start Jan. 1.
California is expected to receive about $300 million in federal money for outreach and advertising, some of which is going to a wide array of groups trying to promote the health exchange, but surveys show that many people remain confused about the law and how it will affect them.
"I think it's hard to overstate how big a change this is: People will no longer pay based on how sick they are, but on what they can afford based on a percentage of income. That's a transformational change in the way health care works," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, which has advocated for greater health care coverage for the poor.
The Associated Press