SACRAMENTO (AP) — Officials with California's health insurance exchange Tuesday said about 625,000 people have signed up for an individual or family policy under the federal health care reforms, but enrollments for Latinos and younger people continue to lag expectations.
Younger people are crucial for the private insurance market. Insurers need them to balance out the number of older customers, who are more likely to use health services.
About 25 percent of those choosing an insurance plan are in the 18- to 34-year-old group, below the roughly 36 percent that Covered California, as the exchange is called, eventually wants to see.
Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said he is not concerned about the initial enrollment numbers among that demographic.
"We're optimistic, but we think we're in a very good place," he said during a news conference.
The federal government and insurance companies knew enrollment among certain groups would not hit the targeted levels "out of the gate," he said, while estimating that it could take a couple of years to get younger people signed up in robust numbers.
More than half of those enrolling in California from Oct. 1 through the end of the year were ages 45 to 64.
Lee said it was too early to tell whether failing to hit the target for younger people will affect the policy premiums that insurance companies set for 2015 and beyond. Insurers already are looking at their risks and expectations for next year, he said.
"We're very optimistic ... that plans will go into 2015 with what we hope will be reasonable premiums," Lee said.
Insurers similarly say it is premature to draw conclusions about the mix of enrollees to date.
"Health plans are focused on the next two months, not the next two years, in terms of getting young and, for that matter, older enrollees into Covered California," said Patrick Johnston, chief executive officer of the California Association of Health Plans, which represents insurers.
He said insurance companies need a broad mix of policyholders to ensure financial stability and are betting that people in their 20s and 30s will see the value in having health insurance and participating in a pool that ultimately will benefit them.
In addition to focusing on younger people, Covered California is intensifying its marketing efforts to Latinos, who represent a large share of the uninsured.
Statistics released by the exchange Tuesday show that about 30 percent of those who have applied for coverage but have not yet selected a health plan self-identified as Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish origin. That compares to the estimate that about 46 percent of Californians who are eligible for a government subsidy on the health insurance exchange are Latino.
As of mid-January, Covered California was about halfway toward meeting its initial goal of signing up 1.3 million people for individual policies by the March 31 enrollment deadline. Lee said about three-quarters of consumers who had selected a plan have paid their first month's premium.
While remaining characteristically upbeat about the rollout of the Affordable Care Act in California, Lee acknowledged that many consumers continue to be frustrated because of paperwork confusion and wait times that can reach 45 minutes when calling the state health exchange.
He said the exchange had been slammed with people wanting to enroll.
"The volume surprised all of us," he said.
Other enrollment statistics released Tuesday by Covered California:
— About 85 percent of people signing up for coverage on the exchange are eligible for a government subsidy that lowers premium costs.
— About 60 percent are selecting a so-called silver plan, the mid-level insurance policy to which the subsidies are pegged. The next most popular policy is the lower-tiered bronze plan, which has lower premiums but higher out-of-pocket expenses.
— Four of the 11 companies selling insurance plans through the exchange account for 95 percent of all enrollments so far. They are: Anthem Blue Cross of California; Blue Shield of California; Health Net; and Kaiser Permanente.
— An additional 584,000 people who initially sought insurance through the exchange were determined to be likely eligible for Medi-Cal, California's version of Medicaid. The state-federal program provides health insurance for the poor.