Seeking to rebut mounting criticism over the rollout of Obamacare nationwide, California's insurance exchange boasted that nearly 29,000 people applied for coverage last week under the federal healthcare law.
Covered California, the state's new marketplace, said it released the data earlier than planned to counter "misinformation" and reports about widespread glitches preventing people from signing up. Peter Lee, the exchange's executive director, defended the law and cited the personal stories of Californians who had successfully sought coverage.
"This continued drumbeat of doubters and misinformation made us say, 'Let's put this out,'" Lee said. Pointing to persistent Republican efforts in Washington to defund or delay Obamacare as a federal government shutdown drags on, Lee said that "you can't derail something when it has already left the station. We are going very strong."
President Obama and the fate of his signature healthcare law have a lot riding on California's enrollment efforts given its size and strong political backing for the Affordable Care Act. California is one of 14 states running their own insurance exchange; the federal government is operating the marketplace in the 36 other states.
California is trying to enroll more than 2 million people in subsidized health insurance or an expansion of Medicaid by the end of next year, more than any other state.
"This is a good start, but the pace of enrollment will have to accelerate for California to meet its goals," said Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. "I hope they have eliminated the glitches."
In the absence of any firm enrollment numbers from the federal exchange, California and some other states are providing the first glimpse at the consumer response. Tuesday, New York's exchange said more than 40,000 people had completed an application during the first week of enrollment.
Kentucky reported that it had received nearly 15,000 applications by earlier this week. Maryland, slowed by website problems, said it had only 566 applications in hand last weekend.
In California, 16,311 households had completed the application process through Saturday, representing 28,699 people. Consumers had started an additional 27,305 applications that are still pending while they consider their options and keep shopping.
"This blew the socks off anything we expected," Lee said.
The start of enrollment has been marked across much of the country by severe computer glitches and long wait times. The federal exchange website has experienced more technical difficulties and criticism than the one in California.
Still, Californians haven't been spared from repeated error messages and frozen computer screens while trying to sign up. In response, California shut down its online enrollment three times in the last week to address technical problems.
Tina Petrakis, a 56-year-old biotech consultant in Pacifica, said it took her more than two hours and five log-in attempts Monday to complete the sign-up process. She called the exchange to get some answers and faced a wait of more than 30 minutes. Then she tried a Web chat, only to be told she was No. 52 in line.
"I'm a supporter of the health law, and I found the website upsetting and very difficult with lots of technical glitches," she said.
She eventually picked a Gold plan from Anthem Blue Cross that would cost $342 a month, after a federal subsidy based on her income. But she thinks her 7-year-old son was mistakenly enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program, and she never got confirmation of her selections.
"I'm worried everything I did went nowhere," Petrakis said.
Lee acknowledged that the state website has been slow and "clunky" in the first week, but he said computer upgrades are making it "faster every day." He also said service-center employees were answering calls within five minutes by the end of last week, down from 30 minutes beforehand.
Experts say the real test for California and other exchanges will come in November and early December when websites, call centers and enrollment counselors come under even greater pressure. Enrollment in exchanges nationwide runs through March 31. But consumers must sign up by Dec. 15 if they want coverage in effect by Jan. 1.
"We believe there will be a crush of people in the first two weeks of December," said Bryce Williams, managing director of exchange solutions at Towers Watson & Co., a benefits consultant. "And this isn't buying a Furby off EBay. This is more like refinancing your mortgage."
Gregg Fuller of West Hills ran into numerous computer errors on the first day of enrollment last week and couldn't register an account. But he was able to sign up Monday for a Bronze plan from Anthem Blue Cross that will cost him only $32 a month after getting a federal subsidy tied to his income.
The 29-year-old substitute teacher said he has been unable to afford health insurance since January 2012, so he was excited to find coverage at such a low rate.
"It's nice to have the peace of mind," Fuller said, "that I will be covered as of Jan. 1."