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California sticks with March 31 deadline for Obamacare -- for now

California sticks with March 31 deadline for Obamacare -- for now
Ana Oliva and Felix Portillo get information on health insurance through Covered California from Valeria Lopez in downtown Los Angeles. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

California says March 31 remains the deadline to apply for Obamacare, but the state will give residents who start an application by then until April 15 to finish signing up.

Wednesday, the Obama administration said it would allow consumers using the federal exchange in 36 states to complete enrollment for health insurance after next week's deadline as long as they declare that they started the process before the end of the month.

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Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said Wednesday that March 31 is still the deadline to apply for state residents. But he said the exchange wanted to allow extra time to accommodate the expected influx of last-minute applicants.

Covered California offered a similar grace period in late December when a surge of applicants wanting coverage Jan. 1 overwhelmed the state's website and call center, leading to glitches and major delays.

The exchange continued to enroll people for several days after the Dec. 23 deadline.

Covered California has urged people not to wait until the final day in order to avoid website problems and long waits on the phone.

The state has added phone capacity and hired more call-center workers, but average wait times were still exceeding 30 minutes. In recent weeks, a third of callers got a busy signal and about half couldn't get through and abandoned their call, officials said.

"If everyone waits until March 31, you can never add enough capacity to help them all," Lee warned last week.

Instead, exchange officials have recommended that people visit the state website, coveredca.com, and find a certified enrollment counselor or insurance agent near them. There's also information there on upcoming enrollment events at libraries, churches and college campuses.

The state has more than 5,100 enrollment counselors and nearly 12,000 certified insurance agents statewide assisting consumers. Through mid-March, California has enrolled more than 1 million people in private health plans.

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