Short of its enrollment goal ahead of a Sunday deadline, California's Obamacare exchange made a final push for sign-ups at Los Angeles area clinics, churches and shopping malls.
Covered California officials said enrollment was up sharply heading into the weekend, with 25,645 people picking a health plan Friday. That pushed total enrollment to 1.36 million. The state is trying to reach 1.7 million in the second year of the health law rollout.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, urged the uninsured to turn out before open enrollment ends at midnight Sunday. Without coverage, he warned, people risk paying a federal tax penalty or getting stuck with huge medical bills they cannot afford.
"We know many people wait until the last minute and we're seeing lines out the door today," Lee said at a clinic in East L.A., where dozens of people were waiting to enroll Saturday. "We're nearing the finish line on the second year of this historic initiative, and we don't want to leave anyone behind."
In anticipation of long lines and potential glitches with the state website, Covered California has already granted consumers extra time to finish enrolling if they take some action by Sunday.
The state said people have until Friday to complete the sign-up process as long as they begin an application or schedule an appointment now with an insurance agent or enrollment counselor. New enrollment won't be allowed starting Monday.
Construction worker Arturo Aceves, 50, and his wife, Amelia Ruiz, 52, showed up Saturday at an AltaMed clinic in East L.A. to find out what health insurance would cost them.
Aceves said the couple haven't been insured since he lost coverage at work seven years ago. But he said he's starting to worry more about his health as he gets older.
An enrollment counselor told the couple they qualified for federal subsidies based on their income, and the lowest level Bronze plan would cost them $62 a month.
"That sounds good," Aceves said. "I want some coverage just in case I get sick."
Outside, more than 50 people sat in plastic chairs under white tents waiting to enroll. Across the street at another sign-up location, several families with young kids stood in line clutching paperwork and insurance brochures.
California led the nation in the first year of the Affordable Care Act with about 1.2 million enrollees. But health-policy experts predicted that reaching the remaining uninsured would be more difficult in the health law's second year.
Many in the pool of potential applicants have slightly higher incomes and therefore don't qualify for as much federal aid to reduce their premiums. In surveys, many consumers say health insurance remains too expensive.
Individuals earning up to $46,000 annually and families of four making up to $94,000 qualify for assistance buying a health plan. The average monthly subsidy was $436 per household last year in California, according to state data.
"The remaining group includes many who have been uninsured long-term and may need more help with information," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a consumer advocacy group.
There are numerous enrollment events Sunday across the Southland, including some that will run until midnight. More information can be found at http://www.coveredca.com or by calling (800) 300-1506.
One key barometer California officials are tracking is Latino enrollment.
Nearly 40% of the subsidy-eligible population in California is Latino, and the state exchange significantly increased its marketing to those consumers.
Through mid-January, 28% of California's new enrollees were Latino. The state said it's optimistic that percentage will grow with the surge of enrollment at the deadline.
The exchange partnered with leading immigrant-rights groups to reassure Latinos that no information collected during the sign-up process would be used against family members who are undocumented and possibly at risk of deportation.
The state has also emphasized the higher penalties for skipping coverage.
For the 2014 tax year, the penalty is $95 per adult or 1% of modified adjusted gross income, whichever is higher. Those penalties went up for 2015 to $325 per adult or 2% of income.
In addition to Covered California, 2.7 million residents have joined Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program, since January 2014. Medi-Cal enrollment tops 12 million. That program is open to applicants year round.