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Health exchange preps for second round
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — California’s health insurance exchange said Thursday that it is learning from past mistakes by adding staff and capacity in preparation for the second round of open enrollment next month.

Beginning Nov. 15, the 1.1 million Californians who enrolled through Covered California during the first year will be able to renew their coverage for 2015. At the same time, the uninsured can apply for new coverage, either through private plans or Medi-Cal.

“Anyone that’s currently enrolled in Covered California can either keep their current plan with a tiny couple of exceptions or shop around and pick a new plan,” Executive Director Peter Lee said Thursday. “We want either of those options to be as easy as possible.”

Lee said the exchange would like as many people as possible to enroll by Dec. 15 because that’s the deadline for coverage to begin Jan 1. However, open enrollment will continue to Feb. 15.

The exchange exceeded its enrollment projections during the first round and is hoping to increase participation to 1.7 million Californians. An estimated 5.3 million Californians are eligible to purchase private coverage through the exchange.

Covered California launched an online marketplace last year as part of the state’s implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act. Overwhelmed by public interest, the exchange was ill-prepared to handle the high volume of calls and applications, triggering long wait times at help centers and problems with its website. Covered California extended open enrollment for two weeks beyond the original March 31 deadline.

“It swamped us,” Lee said.

He said that the exchange is learning from those mistakes by increasing its website capacity, adding call center staff and installing a dedicated line for insurance agents. Consumers also will be able to make their first premium payments online.

Responding to complaints about under-enrollment of minorities, Covered California has expanded the number of representatives who will be able to help callers in Spanish, Chinese and other languages. The call centers will be open on many Sundays during the first month of open enrollment.

Lee also said he welcomed outside review of the exchange’s contracting practices after The Associated Press revealed that Covered California steered millions of dollars to a firm whose employees have long-standing ties to Lee. Those no-bid contracts worth a total of $4.2 million went to a consulting firm, The Tori Group, whose founder has strong professional ties to the executive director.

“We welcome scrutiny,” Lee said. “But we think we’ve had a lot of independent oversight looking over our shoulder, which we welcome.”

He said contracts are reviewed by the federal government, the state auditor and the exchange’s five-member board.