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For California’s Uninsured, A Rush To The Finish

Uninsured Californians flocked to shopping malls, beauty salons, clinics and libraries Monday to meet the deadline for enrolling in health coverage.

The website of the state-run insurance exchange,, was so inundated that officials directed some consumers who began online applications to return later to complete them.

The state was seeing a “huge surge” in last-minute applications, with more than 150,000 people signing up in the last week, Peter Lee, executive director of the exchange said Monday. More applications were started on Sunday than any other day since Oct. 1, when open enrollment began on the nation’s insurance exchanges.

By 5 p.m., the website had seen 420,000 unique visitors, slowing it down. “That volume of response is unprecedented,” Lee said.

Altogether, more than 1.2 million Californians have enrolled in health insurance through Covered California, according to Lee.

Lee announced that consumers who were unable to create an online account Monday because of technical difficulties will be able to do so until April 15 through an enrollment counselor, county worker, certified insurance broker or call-center employee.

Also, anyone who took initial steps to apply by Monday – the final day of a six-month enrollment period – has two weeks to finish. Lee reiterated that he was not extending the March 31 deadline, but he pledged to get applicants “across the finish line by April 15,” Lee said.

Paper applications need to be postmarked by March 31.

Enrollment for private insurance will not open again until next fall, although people who get divorced, lose jobs or have other significant life changes will still be able to sign up for coverage.  Enrollment for Medi-Cal, the state’s version of the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled, will be open year-round for people who qualify.

Enrollment Marathon

Responding to the expected demand, the Service Employees International Union held a 19-hour enrollment marathon beginning at 5 a.m. Monday. By midafternoon, about 400 people had enrolled and 300 more were waiting.

“We’re beyond capacity,” Sean Wherley, spokesman for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, said late Monday afternoon. “It’s the last day and the last hours. Deadline always motivates people to show up.”

At the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, applicants sitting in chairs outside a Macy’s department store were waiting up to four hours to meet with enrollment counselors. A nonstop stream of people came up to an information kiosk with questions: Is today the last day? How much is the penalty? What kind of coverage do I need? How much do I have to pay?

Mario Rivera, 23, who works at a warehouse, said he put off applying until the last minute because he didn’t think he could afford the coverage. Rivera, who is uninsured, recently went to the emergency room because of kidney stones and had to pay $400 in medical bills.

An enrollment counselor told Rivera he would be eligible for Medi-Cal but that he couldn’t get onto the website to sign him up because it was overtaxed. Rivera said the counselor promised to get the application going later and call him.

Stephanie Sandoval, 24, sat down at a small desk across from Covered California enrollment counselor Erick Larsen, who said he had enrolled hundreds of people over the past several months. Sandoval handed him her tax return and said she worked in a restaurant.

Larsen explained that she would qualify for federal subsidies through Covered California, and that her young son would be eligible for Medi-Cal. “Obama and the government are really gonna help you,” he said.

Larsen also couldn’t sign on to the website so he handed her a card and told her to return between April 2 and April 14. “The good news is that you made the deadline,” he said. “The bad news is that you’re gonna need to come back to finish.”

Larsen said for much of the enrollment period, he has worked seven days a week, often without taking lunch. “The joy of watching people get insurance for the first time in their lives is exhilarating,” he said.