Don’t confuse California Obamacare exchange with U.S. one, exec says

Despite fixing many of its own technical glitches, California’s health insurance exchange is worried that consumers may still be confused by high-profile enrollment problems through a federal website.

Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said the state exchange is adjusting its marketing to address this concern and to ensure that people know it’s open for business.

A federal exchange and its website are responsible for enrollment under the Affordable Care Act in 36 states outside California. Tuesday, Covered California announced that 179,562 applications for insurance were started through Oct. 26, covering the first four weeks of enrollment.

The state has declined to say how many people have completed an application, and it doesn’t plan to release enrollment figures until Nov. 14.


In a recent meeting with Times editors and reporters, Lee discussed the emotional response from some consumers and the state’s plan to boost enrollment help in the field. Here are excerpts:

Are you worried about the problems spilling over into California and hurting enrollment here?

There is this real worry people who hear about glitches think that’s us and so don’t even try.

I was at the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors and they were saying, “So our constituents are worried the system isn’t working because we hear the ability to enroll in the Affordable Care Act isn’t working.”

Will that mean people don’t try us? I don’t know they are not.

But if the story generally is you can’t enroll in the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare, that worries me.

That is part of our job. We have a radio spot and those are the sort of things we can change on a dime. We have a radio spot saying California, we are open for business. We have a working website. You can enroll today, come on down.

We don’t want people to think they can’t act.

Nearly a month in, how is the rollout going for Covered California?

It will take three things for this whole thing to succeed.

Affordable products, which we’ve got. A lot of effective marketing and outreach, which we are doing and will be doing for the next six months, and effective enrollment, which is about the [information technology] system and a lot more.

In regard to the online enrollment system, it’s working well when you think about the core functionality of people putting in their income and having it validated with the federal data hub and being able to pick a plan. That was working from the very first days, and it is working better and better.

There are what I call the added bells and whistles, which we will always keep on adding. Such as the provider directory, such as the ability to search and find a local person in your neighborhood to help you enroll.

The provider directory is up for physician search. The ability to look for local [enrollment] help near you is working.

What’s not live and will probably take another month is to search for hospitals and names of clinics. It also doesn’t display right now the specialty of the doctor.

What has surprised you during the launch?

A lot more people actively shopped than I thought would happen in the month of October.

What I have been surprised at is the relatively high percentage of people coming in that are not subsidy-eligible [federal premium subsidies based on income]. In retrospect, I said of course. A lot of the people that are coming in the door in October are people who have been denied coverage and have pre-existing conditions....

Once a week, I’m going to our call centers and I spend an hour and an half giving them an update and ask them to tell me stories.

One person told me about a woman who called and she started sobbing at getting health coverage. I look out over the 350 people there and I see all these people nodding their heads.

So I asked them, “How many of you have had someone cry in relief and gratitude at having peace of mind?” Over half raised their hands....

Now to have the risk pool work we need to have non-criers. People who haven’t been waiting at the gate. We want to have people who can cry. And we want that 26-year-old that’s saying, “I don’t really want healthcare.”

California has a backlog of several thousand enrollment counselors and insurance agents waiting to be certified and authorized to enroll people. Can the state get those people ready in time?

I’m very confident by Nov. 15 we will have a lot of people in every community. I don’t know if I would call it running behind schedule. I’d call it running behind our ideals and ambitions....

The builds we have been doing — developing training curriculum and the certification process — are a huge enterprise.

We are staffing up three service centers to have 600 people answering calls, and generally today we are hitting our target of 80% of calls answered in 30 seconds or less. We certainly weren’t there the first week, but we are now. That is pretty phenomenal. It’s hard to do if you are Amazon.

Given the federal exchange troubles, there’s talk that open enrollment could be extended beyond March 31. Would that be a problem for California?

We are doing all of our planning assuming we have until March 31. As much as I have heard that, I would be surprised. But I have been surprised before.

Remember, six months is quite a bit of time. We are going to have a lot of people insured in California as of April 1.

Twitter: @chadterhune