Good news for Californians frustrated in their attempts to sign up for health insurance by Monday's deadline: The state's new health exchange has extended the grace period to Friday -- and may stretch it beyond that -- for thousands of people unable to get coverage because the website and call centers were overwhelmed.

The grace period applies to anyone who attempted to start an application before Monday's deadline for coverage to begin Jan. 1, although many people were not even able to get that far.

Santiago Lucero, spokesman for the state's exchange Covered California, said insurers need time to review policy applications so coverage can start in the new year. He encouraged people to keep trying to reach a call center, even if they have no record of their attempts to get coverage before the deadline.

"We will take their word, on an honor code," he said. "If they made a good-faith effort and cannot prove they went on online, we will help them case by case."

He said there is a chance the grace period for considering those applications could be extended beyond Friday, especially if it becomes clear that people are continuing to have trouble getting through the system. But that decision would be made only after Covered California officials consulted with insurance companies, brokers and others who are trying to help people sign up.

His advice to consumers: "Be patient; keep calling."

Statistics posted Tuesday to the agency's website said the average wait time for the call centers was 43 minutes. The call centers were closed for Christmas but re-open Thursday at 8 a.m.

Monday's deadline was only for insurance to start with the new year. Consumers have until March 31 to get health care coverage and avoid a federal tax penalty in 2014.

Though the inability to enroll through the website or reach a counselor in one of the state's three call centers on Monday was frustrating, it also illustrated how interest in getting coverage under the federal health law has exploded as the deadline approached.

Covered California this week said the number of people signing up for policies through the health insurance exchange had soared past 400,000. Hundreds of thousands of others will be eligible for Medicaid coverage.

While the website and call centers appeared to be working better on Tuesday, postings on Covered California's Facebook page suggested that problems persisted. Numerous people wrote in, frustrated that they still could not set up an account.

Gene Nelson, an unemployed former adjunct professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, finally got through to a call center on Tuesday after trying unsuccessfully online and by phone Monday. After speaking with a counselor, he believes he and his wife are eligible for Medicaid and is awaiting information the counselor said would be mailed to him.

Nelson, who will be 62 in January and has a doctorate degree in natural sciences, has not had health insurance since 2009. But he said he remains apprehensive because he was told his coverage will not begin until February and he does not yet know what it will include.

"I don't know what I'm getting," he said.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Covered California has extended the grace period to Friday to finish signing up for health care that would start on Jan. 1.
Go online at coveredca.com, or call 800-300-1506.
Once your application has been approved, you'll receive an invoice for the first month's premium by Jan. 1, and it must be paid to the health plan directly, not to Covered California. Most health plans accept payment by phone.
Payment must be received by Jan. 6 for coverage to be retroactive to Jan. 1.
An insurance membership ID card will be mailed to you within 10 business days after your payment has been received. An enrollment package will also be mailed with your ID card.
Source: California Association of Health Plans