SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California's health exchange is more than halfway toward meeting its original projection of 1.3 million sign-ups for individual insurance policies by the March 31 enrollment deadline, according to federal data released Wednesday.
The report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that slightly more than 728,000 people have selected a health insurance plan through Covered California, as the state marketplace is known. That includes those who already have begun paying their premiums and those who have not.
While California leads the nation in sign-ups, enrollment remains slightly behind the number projected last year by the Obama administration, which estimated 806,000 Californians would enroll in plans by the end of March. Just six weeks remain until the end of open enrollment.
Covered California declined to comment on the details contained in the Wednesday report, referring inquiries to its public relations firm, Ogilvy Public Relations.
A spokeswoman for Ogilvy, Lizelda Lopez, said Covered California will provide more detailed enrollment figures for the state exchange next week but was pleased with the numbers released by the administration.
"We feel very confident that we are well on our way with this information," she said.
A quarter of those signing up between the Oct. 1 start of open enrollment and Feb. 1 are in the 18-34 age group coveted by insurance companies, while 52 percent are in the 45-64 age bracket, according to the HHS report. Those numbers track the age breakdown nationally.
Insurance industry experts have said that roughly 40 percent of policies need to be sold to people who are younger and healthier to make their coverage financially viable. Older people typically are more costly to cover because they use more in health care services.
The percentage of younger people signing up has been a concern for the Latino Caucus in the California Legislature, which has been pushing Covered California to improve efforts to reach Latinos, in large part because they tend to be younger than the general population.
State Sen. Norma Torres, who has spoken on behalf of the caucus during the exchange's board meetings, introduced a bill earlier this week to expand its board of directors from five members to seven and require at least some member to have expertise in marketing, customer service and information technology.
Torres' concern with enrolling Latinos and younger people is intertwined, said her spokesman, Alex Barrios.
"Enrolling Latinos is a key component of the exchange and maintaining financial viability and keeping rates affordable," he said.
The federal report did not include an ethnic breakdown of enrollees, but that information is expected to be released next week by Covered California.
Enrollments nationwide have been slowed because of technical problems on both the federal website operating in 36 states and the state-run sites in the 14 others, but they have picked up in most states as those problems were addressed.
Nationwide, 3.3 million people signed up for individual or family polices on the exchanges through Feb. 1, according to Wednesday's report. While that number appears robust, the Obama administration originally projected the exchanges would enroll 7 million by March 31.
California so far has hit 90 percent of its anticipated sign-ups to date, but the exchange has been far from trouble-free.
For example, an operational overview given during Covered California's January board meeting showed that people dialing in to one of its three call centers waited 45 minutes to an hour for someone to answer, far exceeding the exchange's goal of answering 80 percent of calls within 30 seconds. In January, the reported wait time had grown to more than 50 minutes.
Yolanda Richardson, the exchange's chief deputy executive director, also said policy notices were sent with inaccurate or confusing information, or were not sent at all. Certified insurance agents and enrollment counselors complained of waiting on hold for hours just to get questions answered.
Richardson said the exchange did not meet its service standards during the first three months of enrollment, calling it "absolutely unacceptable."
The exchange has taken a number of steps since then to improve customer service, including hiring 350 to 400 additional call center employees, creating a dedicated phone line for insurance agents and counselors, and increasing the number of bilingual staffers.
Other data related to California's exchange contained in the federal report:
— 54 percent of those signing up are women and 46 percent men, about the same as the national average.
— Of the plans selected, 23 percent are bronze (compared to 19 percent nationally); 63 percent are silver (62 percent nationally); 7 percent are gold 7 (12 percent nationally); and 7 percent are platinum, which is the same as the national figure.
— 87 percent of those who selected a plan are eligible for a subsidy, while the rest are not. Nationally, it's 82 percent and 18 percent.
— 850,000 Californians who went to the exchange were determined to be eligible for Medicaid, the state-federal insurance program for low income people.