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March 27, 2014
Editorial: Ticking down to Affordable Care Act's sign-up crunch time

Covered_California_pamphlet.JPG(March 27 - By the Editorial Board)

The uninsured have four days to get an application started for health insurance, or pay a penalty on their 2014 taxes.

With the penalty, they get nothing but a hole in their pockets. With insurance, they are covered if they break a leg or get sick. Still, many people have waited until the last moment to act.

The state exchange, Covered California, is in "all hands on deck" mode, but concerned that a surge in the final few days could result in long wait times.

Earlier concerns about low enrollments among the Latino population now have shifted to the African American population.

So it is crunch time in communities with large numbers of uninsured Californians. The vast majority of us who have insurance should reach out to family and friends who don't have coverage and urge them to go online, pick up the phone or go in person to get enrolled. The March 31 deadline exists for a reason, to ensure that people don't sign up for insurance only when they are sick or injured. That protects the risk pool, balancing healthy and sick people, helping economic viability.

But what if people can't get through online or by phone? The best times are early in the morning and later in the evening. But that's no guarantee. The best option may be in-person enrollment. Go to the Covered California website and click on the big yellow button, "Find Local Help." Type in your ZIP code and get a list of sites where you can apply. For example, in midtown Sacramento, you can go to the Cares Community Health Center at 1500 21st St.

The in-person sites in Sacramento say they are seeing a surge. Word is getting out about the tax penalty.

Some community groups also are holding special enrollment events. Click on the "Events Near You" button on the website.

For example, today 1 Solution and the Center for Employment Training on Fruitridge Road between 83rd and 84th streets in Sacramento are taking walk-ins. Tomorrow people can sign up from 1 to 5 p.m. at the North Sacramento-Hagginwood Library on Del Paso Boulevard.

On Sunday, they can enroll from 1 to 3:30 p.m. at Faith Fellowship Community Church on Watt Avenue and Freedom Park Drive in North Highlands.

And real procrastinators can sign up from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday at the Brickhouse Gallery at 36th Street and Broadway in Oak Park.

The California Association of Health Plans told The Bee's editorial board that insurers so far are pleased with enrollment numbers. But they won't know until next year how healthy or sick the pool is. They will have to wait to see what claims come in.

But don't expect that to deter partisans on April Fools' Day from declaring the first six-month enrollment period of the Affordable Care Act either a glaring failure or a resounding success. It is neither.

Covered California still is ironing out call center and Internet issues. And there's still a time lag if applications have missing elements or incorrect information. It may take some people until mid-April to get an invoice and an insurance card.

But these are problems that can be worked out to improve the next enrollment period - November through February.

The doomsayers simply are off-base - as they were in proclaiming unworkability and opposition after Medicare and Medicaid. Both programs have kept millions of Americans free from ruinous medical expenses, and have been modified over time to meet new needs and ensure solvency.

In California as of the end of February, 2.6 million people had signed up for affordable or no-cost health coverage - 880,000 in private insurance plans in the exchange and 1.8 million with Medi-Cal. And young adults have been able to stay on their parents' health plans until age 26.

This first enrollment period certainly has had hiccups. Some will end on their own over time. Others will require a good look at causes and specific remedies.

But we aren't going back to the days when 7 million Californians were uninsured.