California's health insurance exchange extended its deadline for consumers who want Obamacare coverage in effect beginning Jan. 1.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said people who start the application process or made some "good faith effort" by Monday will have until Dec. 21 to finish signing up. Monday at midnight was the original deadline.
"We are providing this window to get people across the finish line," Lee said at an exchange board meeting Monday. "We know many of the people applying have never had insurance before, and these are individuals who need to sit down and talk with someone."
Lee said many insurance agents and enrollment counselors were fully booked with applicants Monday. He said the deadline extension will enable consumers to get help or make an appointment through Dec. 21.
Covered California signed up about 1.2 million people during the initial open enrollment period that ended in April under the Affordable Care Act. The state is trying to build on that and reach 1.7 million enrolled by Feb. 15 when the current sign-up period ends.
Toward that goal, the state expects most customers will have their existing plans automatically renewed, and it said it has added 91,600 new enrollees from Nov. 15 to Dec. 11.
Exchange officials have urged existing policyholders to shop around prior to the deadline because they may be able to find a lower premium from a different insurer.
The latest deadline extension reflects both strong consumer interest and the exchange's ongoing service problems online and at its call centers.
Covered California said the average wait time at its service center last week was 18 minutes and that 32% of callers abandoned their call. That marked an improvement from a hold time of nearly 23 minutes, on average, and 46% of callers hanging up from Nov. 15 to Dec. 7.
Lee said the exchange expects service levels to improve as more staff members are added.
"Eighteen minutes is not what we are working for," Lee said. "We feel good about the progress we are making."
To avoid long waits on the phone or technical glitches online, the state's advertising campaign has directed people to find enrollment counselors and certified insurance agents in their area at http://www.coveredca.com.
Insurance agents, in particular, continue to play a major role in selling Obamacare in California. Lee said agents have accounted for 49% of new enrollment since Nov. 15, up from 40% during last open enrollment.
Diana Dooley, chairwoman of the exchange and secretary of California's Health and Human Services Agency, also announced several upcoming changes to Covered California's five-member board.
Robert Ross, a board member and chief executive of the California Endowment, plans to step down Dec. 31 to allow the state's new Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, to appoint a new director.
Dooley said the terms of two other members, Susan Kennedy and Kim Belshé, are also expiring. It will be up to Gov. Jerry Brown to reappoint them or name a replacement.