The frenzy in December to sign up for insurance under the nation's new healthcare law accounted for a staggering 83 percent of the new policies written before the deadline to start coverage this month, according to numbers released Monday by the federal government.

And in California, that brisk pace continues as the next deadline -- for medical insurance coverage starting Feb. 1 -- approaches on Wednesday, said officials with the state's healthcare exchange.

Covered California is confident that the momentum highlighted in the latest U.S. Department of Health & Human Services report will continue. Data from the health insurance marketplaces -- operated by either the federal government or 14 state-based exchanges -- showed nearly 1.8 million people across the country signed up for a plan last month, bringing the total to 2.15 million since enrollment began Oct. 1.

California's numbers continue to lead the nation; its exchange added 389,498 from late November through Dec. 28 to reach a total of 498,794. Another 460,000 are getting signed up for MediCal, the state's health program for the low-income.

"We're pleased with the response of Californians turning to the state exchange for competitively priced health care coverage,'' said Larry Hicks, a spokesman for Covered California.

Officials there had projected a minimum of 487,000 enrollees by March 31, when open enrollment for 2014 ends. They estimated up to 700,000 Californians could sign up by then.


Advertisement

The surge in December enrollments reflected the procrastination by many Americans who waited until the last minute to beat a deadline to receive coverage this year under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. And those late enrollments often taxed the exchanges, which repeatedly pushed back deadlines and grace periods to handle the crush of business.

The delays continue. An "unprecedented demand'' on its customer service desk last month has prompted Anthem Blue Cross on Monday to extend its payment deadline for those who enrolled in a plan last month. Payments that were due Wednesday can now be received as late as Jan. 31.

Similarly, Kaiser Permanente also announced that the dramatic rise in enrollments around the December deadline and the need for more time to process those applications has pushed it to extend the payment deadline to Jan. 22.

Blue Shield of California said it will not extend its Wednesday deadline; a spokesman for Health Net could not be reached for comment.

Jennifer Jones, a Woodside business owner, is still waiting to hear back from Anthem Blue Cross after repeated tries -- and two payments -- to confirm she and her husband are enrolled. "I am so frustrated, and I don't know what else to do,'' said Jones who continues to call Anthem but said she can't get through.

In California, the federal report showed that 28 percent of the total enrollees are in the 55- to 64-year-old range, followed by 25 percent of enrollees who are between 18 and 34. Healthcare experts say that latter group of so-called "Young Invincibles'' is key to the law's success because this group is healthier and will help balance the risk pool of older, sicker adults.

Similar to the national numbers, most of the Golden State's enrollees -- 61 percent -- signed up for a Silver Plan, the second least expensive of the four-tier plans. And 85 percent received some sort of financial assistance, compared to 79 percent nationally.

Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-920-5343. Follow her at Twitter.com/taseipel.