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Now enrollees need to make payments
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — With its first major deadline in the past, California's health insurance exchange is urging the thousands of people who enrolled for coverage to take the next step and pay for it.

Premiums are due by Jan. 6 for policies starting in the new year. Those who missed the cutoff will have three months to get coverage before a tax penalty kicks in under the federal health insurance reforms.

It's important for people to realize that their policies will not take effect simply because they enrolled for coverage, said Anne Gonzales, a spokeswoman for Covered California, the agency running the state's health exchange.

"They have to submit their payments," she said.

The latest tally from Covered California, released Friday, shows 428,000 people have signed up for an insurance plan since open enrollment under the federal Affordable Care Act began in October.

That number might have been higher, if not for technical problems on the Covered California website and jammed phone lines at the agency's three call centers throughout the state. The exchange was overwhelmed with demand as Monday's deadline loomed and people rushed to get coverage starting in the new year.

Between Dec. 20 and Dec. 23, 103,000 people enrolled, Gonzales said. That compares to the roughly 31,000 people who signed up during all of October.

The problems people were having in completing their applications on Monday led Covered California to modify the sign-up period for certain people. Executive Director Peter Lee said anyone who showed a "good faith" effort to start an application before the Monday deadline would have until the end of the week to complete it.

That grace period was to end at 8 p.m. Friday. Some of about 19,000 paper applications that were caught in a backlog are still being processed, but all of them should be entered into the agency's computer system by the end of the weekend, Gonzales said.

The comment section of Covered California's Facebook page was filled with people who were still having trouble completing the process online or getting through to a call center. Others said they were still waiting for official confirmation of their enrollment.

In response, the agency was asking consumers to contact a call center or was directing them to certified enrollment counselors or insurance agents, who are listed on the website.

One of those, Amber Lidskin of Sacramento, said the sign-up process had been difficult immediately around the deadline but that the online application system was running smoothly by Friday.

"Today's a really good day because I'm not being kicked off, it's not freezing. It's moving beautifully," said Lidskin, an agent with Kuhtz Diehl Insurance and Financial Services.

She has managed to sign up roughly 50 people for coverage on the health insurance exchange in the past two to three weeks and already said she is seeing one benefit of the federal health care law. Before it was implemented, Lidskin said she had to turn away clients with pre-existing medical conditions because she could not find a health insurance policy available to them.

"I hated that, and now I don't have to do that anymore," she said. "That's awesome. ... People deserve to get better."

With the deadline for January coverage over, consumers have until March 31 to sign up so they can avoid the federal tax penalty. The fine starts at a minimum of $95 for an individual, rising to a minimum of $695 by 2016.