Deadline extended one week for January Covered California plans

Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee.
Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The deadline to sign up for an individual health insurance plan on the Covered California exchange for policies that start Jan. 1 has been extended by one week, due to a "surge in demand." Californians now have until Dec. 22 to sign up for coverage.

More than 38,000 new people have signed up for coverage since Monday, according to a statement from Covered California. Since the same time last year, total enrollment has increased 17 percent. Officials believe this is due to monthly premiums that are ten percent lower on average than last year.

"We do not want to leave anyone behind," Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said in a statement. "Our responsibility is to make sure we help every single person seeking to enroll to get the coverage they need."

Lee is touring the state to remind people who don’t get health insurance at work to look for coverage through the state’s online marketplace.

Those who don't are "rolling the dice and potentially ending up in the emergency room in January and walking out with a $250,000 debt. That’s sort of bad math," said Lee.

Californians already in marketplace plans will be automatically be renewed into the same plans on Dec. 22 if they don’t choose a new one.

In August, Anthem Blue Cross announced it would drop all of its individual plans in California for 2018, except in Santa Clara and parts of northern California and the Central Valley. Consumers who used those Anthem products will be signed up for similar plans.

"It's really important that they shop" to compare different plans, Lee said. "Do they have the same doctor? Do they not have the same doctor?"

Californians who are automatically enrolled in a plan they don’t like will still have some time to change until Jan. 31. That’s a month-and-a-half longer than the deadline for Americans in states that use the federal health insurance marketplace.

The different enrollment periods is just one factor that has many Californians confused, said Lee, who points to the Trump administration's ongoing efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act as another. He said he's met people don't know Obamacare is still the law and others who don't know what the law does.

"Three-quarters of the people who are eligible for financial help and are uninsured today don’t realize they can get financial help," he said. 

The vast majority of people--about 85 percent-- who buy insurance through Covered California get federal financial assistance paying their monthly premiums. Even though insurance rates are higher, since the premium subsidies go up as rates increase, the average Californian is paying 10 percent less than last year for similar plans, said Lee.

Californians who make too much to qualify for help with their premiums will pay more in 2018. That increase ranges from $35 to $62 a month on average, not including an additional charge added to 2018’s silver tier plans.

Three times as many people are opting for more robust gold tier plans in 2018 as did last year, said Lee. The product has a lower annual deductible than the silver plan, traditionally the most popular plan that more than half of Covered California consumers choose.

So far, California enrollment is on track to match or exceed last year, Lee said. By comparison, sign-ups are expected to fall short of the 9.2 million who enrolled for 2017 coverage.

Lee said the state’s investment in marketing and outreach is paying off.

"Those really are investments. By spending that money more people getting insured lowers the premiums for everybody," he said.