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lee.jpgCalifornia launched its health insurance marketplace this morning, more than 3-1/2 years after President Barack Obama signed into law his signature legislative achievement.

At 8 a.m., Covered California switched on its online insurance exchange and began taking phone calls at facilities across the state. Many of the state's more than five million uninsured residents can now enroll for health coverage plans regardless of whether they have preexisting health conditions.

Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee described it as a historic day for the state and the nation. He characterized the health program in its early stages as nimble, innovative, self-sustaining and reflecting the diversity of the state.

"This is a day when for millions dreams come true," Lee said as the clock ticked down to the official launch in Rancho Cordova. "This is a day when people finally will have access to quality, affordable health care that cannot be denied and cannot be taken away."

Nearly everyone must obtain health insurance beginning next year or pay a penalty.

Lee said his agency was prepared for the roll out and undisturbed by the federal government shut down triggered last night, which he termed the "brouhaha that is happening in Washington."

"Our success isn't about Washington. It's not about Sacramento," he said. "It's about what happens in East L.A. It's about what happens in Oakland. About what happens in Eureka. In Lincoln. In Fresno. And what happens in county offices and clinics across the state."

The state agency has been scrambling to get the word out and make more services available to online shoppers. Still, some features of the website including the ability for small businesses to obtain coverage on the website will not be available for about six weeks.

"As of today small businesses will be able to quote what they want to buy and get the whole application process through private quoting," Lee said.

That should give them plenty of time to be up and running by Jan. 1.

Health experts have already identified California as a key focus for the rest of the nation given its size, diversity and the high number of uninsured residents. People here must sign up for insurance through the exchange by Dec. 15 to get coverage on Jan. 1. The first open enrollment lasts through March 31.

Diana Dooley, a board member of the state agency, described the enrollment efforts as a marathon and said officials were merely at the starting line. State officials said they suspect applications to trickle in during the first month and then pickup closer to the deadline.

"Everyone in California is going to be welcome in this new state of health," said Dooley, secretary of the Health and Human Services Agency.

PHOTO: Executive Director of Covered California, Peter V. Lee addresses the media on May 23, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling



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