RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. -- Officials at the kickoff of Covered California, the state's health insurance exchange, celebrated the "historic" launch of the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act and said they were undaunted by the federal government shutdown.
A bevy of state health officials and lawmakers gathered in the Rancho Cordova service headquarters of Covered California on Tuesday morning to mark the first day of open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said the federal government shutdown, which began at midnight, would not have an effect on the exchange's operations.
"The political brouhaha in Washington--irrelevant to us," Lee said. "What’s relevant to us is real healthcare, truly affordable, that’s going to make a difference in millions of people’s lives. We’re not going to be distracted by the politics in Washington."
Lee led attendees in a New Year's Eve-style countdown in the final seconds before 8 a.m., when the insurance marketplace opened.
"I'm not excited--I am ecstatic," said state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), who said he had trouble sleeping last night in anticipation of the kickoff. Hernandez said President Obama's health care overhaul was "even more important than Medicare or MediCal because we're coming closer to universal coverage."
The first insurance application was completed in the state at 8:04 a.m., according to Carene Carolan, deputy director of operations for the service center. The Sacramento-area center has around 400 employees, 300 of which will be manning the phones and computers to interact with consumers.
Some consumers have reported long wait times on the phone and difficulties accessing the Covered California website. Carolan said there has been a "huge, huge volume of calls," and that the staff was working to adjust to demand.
"We do real-time reporting so we always know how many people are waiting in the queue and then what we do is we shift staff and try to get more staff on the phone as quickly as possible to reduce consumers' wait times," she said.
"If the website’s running a bit slow, we offer to take down the application on paper and we will enter it later," she added. "We’re all about the consumer experience and we want to provide good service. So even if it makes it a little more work for us on the back end we’re going to provide the stellar consumer experience."
Diana Dooley, the state's secretary of Health and Human Services, acknowledged that enrolling in such programs can be complicated, noting that her own attempts to enroll her mother in Medicare Advantage had required three separate phone calls and web visits.
"It’s going to take some time for people to understand what they’re getting, what they’re paying for. But we’re making it as transparent as possible," Dooley said.