Strong consumer interest in Obamacare coverage ahead of Monday's enrollment deadline was leading to long waits and website trouble for some Californians.
The Covered California exchange said sign-ups have been building throughout the week with about 80,000 people picking a health plan Monday through Thursday. An additional 150,000 households created an online account and started the shopping process in the last three days, officials said.
That heavy volume was creating havoc, confusion and delays for many consumers, enrollment counselors and insurance agents trying to use the exchange's website.
"The website is slow some of the time and waiting until Monday is a bad idea," said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California. "But it's great news that we've still got so many people saying, 'I want health insurance.'"
To ease the logjam, the state is giving people who start an application before midnight Monday until April 15 to finish enrollment. Officials provided a similar grace period in late December when a deluge of applicants wanting Jan. 1 coverage overwhelmed the exchange and insurance companies.
Overall, about 1.1 million Californians have already chosen a private health plan, part of 6 million people nationwide under the Affordable Care Act. An additional 1.5 million residents have been enrolled or deemed eligible for Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program for the poor.
Across the nation, similar scenes were playing out as uninsured people searched for help online and in person, and government officials advised them to be patient amid the heavy traffic.
At the Panorama Mall in the northeast San Fernando Valley on Friday, makeup artist Donna Moss waited for more than an hour alongside 30 other people to see an enrollment counselor. She signed up for a policy last month, but then she wanted to switch because she had trouble finding any doctors nearby.
She couldn't get through on the state website or to the call center, so she came to Friday's enrollment event.
Her counselor at the mall didn't fare much better. The online enrollment system repeatedly froze, so the counselor booked an appointment for Moss to come back Monday.
"It's a waste of time," Moss said. "I thought I'd be done today."
Sherman Oaks resident Robert Petretti, 53, got through the line at the mall in 30 minutes and selected a Bronze plan for $125 a month. "It was clearly explained and everything was shown to me," he said. "I'm satisfied."
California has added call center workers, extended its hours and upgraded its website in recent weeks in preparation for the expected surge of interest.
Clinics, local officials, unions and health plans are also holding enrollment events this weekend across the state at libraries, churches and other locations. The state's website at https://www.coveredca.com lists many of those events and information on how to find a certified enrollment counselor or insurance agent nearby.
A survey released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California indicated that a majority of uninsured residents still plan to enroll. Seventy-five percent of the uninsured people surveyed said they would get health coverage before the deadline.
Statewide, public opinion remained evenly split over the Affordable Care Act, a more positive reading than what national polls show four years after the healthcare law was enacted.
A steady stream of college students were trying to beat the deadline to enroll on the Cal State L.A. campus.
The line was so long this week that Marina Miranda, 23, made an appointment and took an hourlong bus ride to enroll in Medi-Cal.
College student Fabiola Juarez, 25, signed up for a Bronze plan with Health Net Inc. that costs her $27 a month thanks to a federal premium subsidy. She tried using the state website on her own a couple of months ago but found it too complicated. Then she put off her application until she saw a flier on campus last week advertising enrollment help.
"I'm a student. I tend to procrastinate," said Juarez, who was previously uninsured.
Real estate broker Murphy Richardson, 55, recently picked out a Bronze policy with L.A. Care Health Plan to avoid the penalty for being uninsured. Most Americans must have health insurance starting this year or they face a fine of $95 per adult or 1% of household income, whichever is greater.
Richardson said he lost his previous health coverage a few months ago when he missed a premium payment. That shouldn't be as much of a problem now. He qualified for government assistance based on his income and owes $1 a month for his policy.
"It's amazing," he said.