Enrollment by Latinos in California's healthcare insurance exchange surged in the final month of sign-ups after an intensive push to reach that key population.
"Our enrollment became more diverse in this last month, particularly among California's Latino population; our enrollment became younger," Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said during a conference call with reporters Thursday after testifying with the heads of other state exchanges on Capitol Hill.
With 1.2 million signed up for private plans, Lee said, "We're proud of that accomplishment. We think it's something that is giving peace of mind to many Californians. But we're not done."
Lee attributed the increased interest among Latinos to the fact that Covered California escalated its outreach in seven communities within the state that had low enrollment among Latino Californians: "I'm happy to note that hard work appeared to have paid off…. Our focus both by region, and on in-person and in-language support, is now making a difference."
Latino enrollment had been a weak spot for the otherwise high-performing California exchange.
But Latino sign-ups made up about 36% of the March enrollments — compared with around 18% of those in October, November and December. Overall, about 252,000 Latinos had signed up through Covered California — making up more than a quarter of the total and closing in on the target of 265,000, Lee said.
The state exchange will look for ways to boost its appeal to that population, Lee said, which represents about 60% of the state's uninsured.
Some members of Congress, along with state lawmakers, have argued that the state's effort to reach Latinos fell short last fall when the state faced a shortage of enrollment counselors and could not provide a paper application in Spanish until December.
State Sen. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), who criticized the state's low rates of Latino enrollment, said she was glad the March enrollment numbers showed some improvement.
"It is a sign that the legislative pressure we've been applying has resulted in Covered California doing a better job of reaching the Latino population," she said. "However, there are still a disproportionately high number of uninsured and eligible Latinos and young adults that need to enroll."
Torres introduced legislation in February that would change the composition of Covered California's board by adding two more members, with the intent of broadening its range of expertise.
Overall, during the final month of enrollment in March, 416,000 Californians signed up for health insurance plans — making it the most successful month on record for the state exchange. In addition to the 1.22 million people who signed up for private health insurance plans, more than 1.5 million were enrolled or deemed eligible for Medi-Cal, the state's version of Medicaid.
California and other states have also made a huge push to get young people to sign up for health plans — a key component to keeping premium costs down and ensuring the long-term viability of the program.
California's numbers among 18- to 34-year-olds, who represent 36% of the people eligible for subsidies, appeared to be trending in the right direction in the final month.
Lee said Thursday that by the end of March, young people made up about 28% of the population that enrolled, a slight improvement over February and exceeding the state's projections for that age group.
Strong demand in the final days led the California website to crash or run slowly for some users, so the state is giving a reprieve to consumers who began their application before March 31.
They can enroll in coverage as long as they finish their applications by April 15.
Lee said Thursday that some 20,000 people finished the process on Tuesday alone. (On the final day of open enrollment, there were more than 750,000 unique visitors to the state's website, which contributed to the website slowness).
Consumers who tell state officials that they were unable to start their online applications because of technical difficulties will also be allowed to apply, but they can no longer begin an application online and must seek help from Covered California representatives or certified insurance agents.
In addition, it is estimated that several hundred thousand people could qualify for a special enrollment period over the next few months if their circumstances change.
Times staff writer Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.