With nearly six weeks to go before open enrollment ends under the new federal health care law, more than 1.7 million Californians have signed up for health coverage since Oct. 1, according to the state's insurance exchange.

Through Feb. 14, the number who bought a private insurance plan on the Covered California exchange shot up to 828,638, almost reaching the 830,000 goal it hoped to hit by the March 31 open enrollment deadline.

"This shows how strongly Californians are stepping up to take advantage of the Covered California opportunity,'' Peter Lee, the exchange's executive director, said at a news conference Wednesday.

Another 877,000 Californians were determined to be likely eligible for coverage under the health care law's expansion of Medi-Cal, the state's health program for the poor.

Over the last month, the numbers of enrollees in private plans jumped by 203,072, while the number of Medi-Cal enrollees increased by 293,000.

Covered California on Wednesday also revealed that more than 80 percent of those who purchased private plans on the exchange had paid their first month's premium for policies that started in Jan. 1.

At least 626,210 of those who selected private plans are eligible for federal tax subsidies. Lee said Covered California does not know how many of those who have signed up for plans were previously uninsured.


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He also acknowledged that challenges remain to persuade Latinos and many of the state's 18-to-34 year-olds, the so-called Young Invincibles, to enroll in health plans, though both groups are enrolling in greater numbers.

In January, Latino enrollment reached 28 percent of the total number of enrollees, compared with 18 percent from October through December. The enrollment rate of Spanish-speaking Californians in January increased to about 11.5 percent, compared with 5 percent during the first three months of open enrollment.

Through Jan. 31, figures show 119,835 Latinos signed up for a plan, but the exchange is projecting a total of 265,000 by the enrollment deadline.

Enrollment of the Young Invincibles increased slightly from 25 percent to almost 26 percent of those who have selected an insurance plan on the exchange.

The state needs that percentage to reach 36 percent to help balance the state's exchange's risk pool of younger, healthier enrollees with the number of older and sicker enrollees. One way to reach that number is aggressively court the Latino population, which is younger.

Nationwide, if more of the Young Invincibles opt to pay the minimum $95 penalty rather than sign up for insurance, they could undermine the health care law by driving up rates on the new state exchanges.

Lee said he expects many of these younger adults will procrastinate until the deadline, and that Covered California "never thought'' this would be a one-year effort to convince all of them to sign up.

Meanwhile, Covered California has undertaken an expensive ground game through the March 31 deadline targeting Latinos. Lee said $8.2 million has been poured into a Spanish-language media campaign from January through March, a 73 percent budget increase from what it spent targeting Latinos from October through December.

Noting the importance Latinos place on face-to-face interaction when signing up for plans, Lee said Covered California offers 4,000 Spanish-speaking licensed insurance agents, certified enrollment counselors and county resource counselors. And, he said, more bilingual staff is being hired at the exchange's three call centers, while the Spanish-language section on the exchange's website has been improved.

Asked by a reporter why the emphasis on Latinos had not been in place from the beginning, Lee said:

"From Day One, focusing on the Latino enrollment has been the number one priority for Covered California. ... Have we executed perfectly? No.''

But, he said, "it's getting better as we go, and we are seeing some of those results right now.''

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