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California health exchange looks to speed up enrollment in week 2

After a weekend tune-up, California's health insurance exchange will try to overcome first-week glitches that frustrated many consumers trying to sign up under Obamacare.

The state marketplace, called Covered California, shut down its online enrollment system Saturday night through early Monday morning for what it described as "regular maintenance."

Last week, the state took enrollment offline two other times to address problems consumers had with repeated error messages and general slowness on the site.

Some people said they were finally able to create an account on the website after numerous attempts, but they still couldn't log in and complete the sign-up process for coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.

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Officials attributed the initial problems primarily to a larger-than-expected response during the first week of enrollment. 

For now, consumers have plenty of time to consider their options and sign up. Enrollment in the exchange lasts until March 31. People must pick a plan by Dec. 15 to have coverage starting Jan. 1.

"We continue to make improvements and address issues as they arise," said Covered California spokeswoman Anne Gonzales. "The pages were loading more easily and quickly as of late last week." 

Other state exchanges and the federally run marketplace in place for 36 states have experienced similar computer problems.

Some technology experts said it made for a poor first impression.

"It was an embarrassing start,” said Harold Tuck, the former chief information officer for San Diego County, who tried unsuccessfully to use the California and federal exchanges.

Citigroup healthcare analyst Carl McDonald said California's website performed better than some others, but it still had plenty of glitches.

"We experienced the system crashing during the application process, and there were extensive delays loading Web pages," McDonald said.

California was spared from one common criticism. It does allow consumers to get price quotes and compare health plans anonymously without first creating a personal account. That requirement on other state websites appeared to create extensive bottlenecks.

Monday, California plans to launch an online tool that allows people to search for specific doctors and hospitals by health plan before choosing an insurer. That feature was delayed last week as state officials addressed the enrollment issues.

Health insurers in California say the initial interest points to strong enrollment in the months ahead.

“Covered California had an enormous challenge to develop an IT system to manage such a large program,” said Patrick Johnston, president of the California Assn. of Health Plans. “It is working and the fact there are adjustments in the early days only means the demands were great.”

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