Covered California may offer special Obamacare enrollment period

Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee speaks at a Los Angeles event before the Feb. 15 deadline for Obamacare enrollment.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

California’s health exchange, after notching 1.4 million in Obamacare enrollment as of Sunday’s deadline, said it may give uninsured people subject to a tax penalty yet another chance to sign up.

In addition, the Covered California exchange granted applicants until this Sunday to finish enrolling in case they ran into long lines or computer glitches. That matches what the federal marketplace is doing in 37 other states. California had previously offered an extension till Friday.

The prospect of paying a federal tax penalty for being uninsured drove much of the last-minute enrollment, according to California officials, enrollment counselors and insurance agents. About 36,000 Californians signed up Sunday compared with 13,000 one day last week.


Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said many more people might not learn of the financial consequences of skipping coverage until closer to the tax-filing deadline in April. For that reason, he said, he’s considering a special enrollment period for people subject to those federal fines.

Lee said he expects to announce a decision early next week. Some members of Congress have been pressing federal officials to make a similar move.

“We saw thousands of cases of consumers who literally walked across the street from the tax advisor after discovering they had a penalty and going to meet with an insurance agent or certified enroller,” Lee said. A special enrollment period related to taxes “is something we are actively considering.”

It’s too late to avoid the tax penalty for 2014, which 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.

Sacramento resident Chris Martin, 26, said the tax penalty motivated him to sign up Sunday. The chef said he was in good health and didn’t see a real need for health insurance.

“I take good care of myself,” he said. But Martin acknowledged that he could get injured skateboarding or working in the restaurant kitchen.


He qualified for a premium subsidy based on his income, and he was satisfied with his monthly premium of $60.

California had hoped to reach 1.7 million people enrolled for Year Two of the health-law rollout. Through Sunday, it had about 944,000 renewals from 2014 and 474,000 newly enrolled, for a total of 1.4 million.

Nonetheless, Lee said he was pleased with the turnout. He said the exchange fell short of projections primarily because there were fewer renewals than expected.

He said initial data indicate that most of the people leaving the exchange were getting coverage elsewhere through work, Medicare or Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor.

“There will always be substantial movement in and out of the exchange,” Lee said.

The state’s expansion of Medi-Cal under the Affordable Care Act continued to draw huge numbers. Nearly 800,000 people have joined Medi-Cal from Nov. 15 to Jan. 31, putting enrollment above 12 million.

On Tuesday, President Obama announced that health-law enrollment nationwide was about 11.4 million.


Twitter: @chadterhune @skarlamangla