Californians flock to new health care exchange

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Rachel Mansfield has had Oct. 1 fixed in her mind for months.

It was the day the La Quinta resident and her husband could start signing up for subsidized coverage under the federal health care overhaul. It also meant that, once the coverage takes effect on Jan. 1, insurance companies could no longer reject them because of pre-existing conditions.

So she was not about to let computer delays dissuade her from signing up for health insurance through the state’s exchange, known as Covered California. Mansfield’s parents currently pay her $530-a-month premium through the state’s high-risk coverage pool. Her husband, an assistant golf pro, has been rejected because of his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

She has been waiting for the chance to buy health care “that we can take responsibility for.”

“It’s everything,” said Mansfield, a self-employed esthetician in the Coachella Valley city southeast of Palm Springs. “We’re 33 and 35 years old. We should be able to afford health care.”

The state’s online registration site was flooded with more than 1 million hits during the first 90 minutes after its 8 a.m. debut Tuesday and had logged 5 million hits by 3 p.m. Covered California’s two service centers, in Concord and Rancho Cordova, received 17,000 phone calls, said Roy Kennedy, an agency spokesman.

The volume was so great that it overloaded the web page, which was taken out of service from Tuesday night until early Wednesday morning for upgrades.

While Mansfield could not apply through the website, the online calculator she used estimated monthly premiums for her and her husband totaling about $400 a month. And that was for better coverage than she currently has.

After trying the site several times during the day Tuesday, she eventually downloaded a form and was applying “old-school,” by mailing it in.

Tuesday was the first time Mansfield and others who previously could not afford private health insurance or had been denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition could begin buying insurance on state and federal exchanges set up as part of the Affordable Care Act.

That includes some 5.3 million uninsured Californians who are eligible to obtain coverage through the exchange. Many of those wanted to buy insurance but were rejected or could not afford the sky-high premiums, said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California.

“All of those things change today, and we’re going to be opening the doors so that on Jan. 1 all Californians and across the nation have new rules,” Lee said during a news conference and ceremonial launch of the website. “Those new rules mean that we’ve got insurance companies that must give everyone access, guaranteed.”

California was among many states that experienced technical delays which were largely anticipated because of the scope of the program. It’s the largest expansion of the nation’s health care system since Medicare in 1965.

“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.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, did not attend any of the kick-off ceremonies, but used the occasion to sign a package of bills to ease implementation of the law and extend the state’s Medi-Cal insurance program for the poor, as well as to make a political point as many federal government services shut down because of congressional gridlock.

“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.

For health care advocates who have sought to expand access for years, Tuesday was exciting. They cheered as Lee led a countdown to the official launch of the site from a call center in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, one of three in the state. The service center in Fresno is scheduled to open in November.

Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California was thrilled to hear call center workers begin fielding questions.

“I know people who are paying $500, $600, $700 a month who in January will start paying $100 or $200 a month,” he said.

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

Mansfield said it marks a sea change for people like her who have been diagnosed with pre-existing conditions, many of them decades old.

“Being denied for something that nobody should ever be denied is a horrible feeling so I hope that this does really work out,” she said.

In addition to expanding access to people with a pre-existing condition and offering subsidies, annual out-of-pocket expenses will be capped and insurance companies cannot impose a maximum lifetime benefit.

Tuesday also was the launch of many educational campaigns about the law.

At the City College of San Francisco, dozens of students, many of whom said they do not have health insurance, stopped by a booth that offered pamphlets in English and Spanish. Some, like student body president Oscar Pena, 31, said they were surprised to learn of the penalty for those who refuse to get health insurance.

“It’s almost like having to pay for car insurance, and I don’t think a lot of people know that,” Pena told the representatives at the booth.

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Associated Press writer Terry Collins in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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