Exchange Opens for Business, Officials Call It a Bridge to Health Care for Millions

by David Gorn

TOPIC ALERT:

State health officials and legislators yesterday gathered at an unlikely location for an opening ceremony for the state's Covered California health benefit exchange -- at a trendy restaurant, called Epic Roasthouse, in San Francisco, under the shadow of the Bay Bridge.

That setting was enough to draw a metaphor out of Peter Lee, the exchange's executive director.

"We're standing here under the shadow of this landmark, and five years from now, we expect Covered California to be as well-known and as recognizable as this bridge," Lee said.

Tom Torlakson, the state's school superintendent, took it a step further. "Building bridges, that's what we're all about, and that's what we're doing here," Torlakson said. "If children aren't in school [because they did not get preventive health care], then they can't learn. Our schools have a big problem with absenteeism, and this can only help."

Yesterday, as people were still absorbing the news from Washington about the largely Republican move to shut down the government if they can't shut down health care reform, Lee said that the public response in California to health care reform was a little different.

The three call centers in the state are fully staffed and answering phones nonstop, and the Covered California website activity is off the charts, Lee said.

"We are having huge volume," Lee said. Page views of the website averaged 5,000 per minute and peaked at 16,000 per minute.

Overall, the exchange website had about five million page views as of 3 p.m. yesterday, exchange officials said.

 At the three call centers, a total of about 17,000 phone calls were received for the day as of 3 p.m. yesterday.

The deluge of calls yesterday did mean some wait time on the phones, Lee said. "Some of them might be waiting 20 minutes for an operator today," he said. "Other days it may be more like 20 seconds. But right now, we are ready to handle all calls, we are up and running."

Events were staged across California yesterday -- in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno -- to promote the launch of Covered California's six-month-long open enrollment period. If Californians sign up for the exchange by Dec. 15, they will receive health insurance coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014. The initial open enrollment period ends March 31, 2014.

Yesterday's San Francisco event was attended by Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), state controller John Chiang (D) and the director of the Department of Health Care Services, Toby Douglas, along with dozens of stakeholders and public officials.

"This is a day where millions of people's dreams are coming true," Lee said. "People have been working for dozens and dozens of years for this. You look behind us here. A few weeks ago there was a boat race here [the America's Cup]. In some states, they're sailing upwind [in terms of implementing the Affordable Care Act]. In California, we have the wind at our back, to make sure Californians get the coverage they need and deserve."


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