Covered California plans changes to make buying insurance easier

Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee speaks during a press conference in Sacramento on Nov 13, 2013.
Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee speaks during a press conference in Sacramento on Nov 13, 2013.
Max Whittaker/Getty Images

Covered California officials on Thursday announced several changes the agency will implement in an effort to make signing up for health insurance easier during the second round of open enrollment, which begins Nov. 15.

Peter V. Lee, director of the state-run health insurance marketplace acknowledged during a press conference that the agency had made mistakes during the first enrollment period, which ended in March.

Those missteps included not having enough operators to take people’s calls or enough bandwidth to handle heavy traffic to the Covered California website. He also said the agency could have done a better job of reaching out to the Latino and African-American communities. Other mistakes were outlined in a report, entitled "Lessons Learned," that the agency also released on Thursday.

"We had lessons learned," Lee said. "We didn’t do everything perfectly."

He announced several improvements meant to correct the past mistakes, including:

More operators: This year, Covered California will begin open enrollment with 1,300 operators. It began last year’s enrollment period with just 381 operators and ended with 709. Lee said that among the 1,300 operators, nearly five times as many as last year would speak a language other than English.

Expanded hours: The call center will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every weekday. It will also have extended hours on Saturdays and be open on some Sundays.

A better website: Lee said his agency had spent nearly $23 million to make the Covered California website faster and capable of handling more traffic. "We’ve made the pipes bigger," he said.

Instant payment option: Many customers who chose plans through Covered California during round one had to wait weeks to get their first bill or even acknowledgement from their selected insurance companies, leading to worries that they would face gaps in coverage. Lee said this time, many of the insurers will allow customers to pay their first premium at the same time they select a plan through the Covered California website.

More outreach: Reaching Latinos and African-Americans proved especially difficult during the first round of open enrollment. To improve sign-ups among those groups and others, Lee said Covered California will spend $170 million on marketing and outreach. That's $20 million more than during the first go-around, even though this year’s open enrollment period is nearly three months shorter.

Lee said he hopes the improvements will encourage more Californians who did not sign up for health insurance during the first round of open enrollment to do so this year.

Of the roughly 2.6 million Californians who were eligible for a federal subsidy for insurance, about 1.4 million signed up for coverage during the enrollment period that ran from October 2013 to March 2014.

That means about 1.2 million people who qualified for subsidies remain uninsured.

Lee said the agency hopes to get 500,000 of those people to sign up by the time this next round of open enrollment ends on Feb. 15, 2015.