Obamacare got off to a slow, steady start Tuesday in the central San Joaquin Valley in contrast to an early and fast rollout reported by the state's new health care exchange.
At Fresno Healthy Community Access Partners, not many people were seeking help signing up for subsidized insurance through Covered California, the state's health exchange, or for an expanded Medi-Cal program.
"We're having very little activity here," said Norma Forbes, executive director of the nonprofit agency that has Covered California enrollment counselors.
But statewide, inquiries to Covered California were more than officials had hoped for on the first day of enrollment.
Covered California's website got 5 million Web page views by 3 p.m. And at its peak, the site was getting 16,000 views per minute, according to Covered California officials. Also, some 17,000 phone calls had been logged at service centers.
"People are ready for this," said Diana Dooley, the state's Health and Human Services Agency secretary. Dooley, a Hanford native, was on the Fresno State campus Tuesday afternoon to promote the launch of the state health exchange.
About 135,700 Valley residents -- 45,000 in Fresno County -- could qualify for Medi-Cal coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. And more than 100,000 in Valley counties could be eligible for subsidized health plans through Covered California.
But first-day enrollment in Fresno for the expanded Medi-Cal program showed many remain unaware of the new health law that allows low-income "childless adults" to enroll.
A smattering of people filled out applications for Medi-Cal at the Fresno County Department of Social Services at Millbrook and Shields avenues.
"I came in for food stamps," said Kevin Burke, 51, of Fresno. An assembly worker, Burke said he has been out of work for two years. "I don't know where a job is anymore," he said. He had Medi-Cal previously, but was disenrolled when his daughter turned 18, he said.
Medi-Cal enrollment also was quiet at a regional call center in Merced that is set up to take calls transferred from Covered California. By 3:30 p.m., only six callers had been routed to the Merced center for help enrolling in Medi-Cal.
"I think they're having some difficulties with the transfer process," said Ana Pagan, director of the Merced County Department of Health and Human Services.
A Covered California call center in Fresno is expected to open later this month.
So many people tried to access Covered California's website Tuesday that it sometimes froze. Still, Dooley said glitches in the state's computer system were far less than she expected. "It's incredibly miraculous to me that we're as operational as we are," she said.
Dooley also said the launch of Covered California was not affected by efforts to delay Obamacare that are at the center of the federal government shutdown.
"The repeal or the delay is nothing but politics," she said in an interview. By the rush of people seeking information about Covered California, it's "quite clear that Californians see the benefit" in the new health law, she said.
Dooley was joined at Tuesday's event by Fresno State President Joseph Castro, former state Assembly Member Sarah Reyes and Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, among others.
Reyes, now program manager for The California Endowment, urged students to sign up for health insurance though Covered California. "It's up to you," she said. "You have to get information, call up and get covered."
To have insurance beginning Jan. 1, people must enroll by Dec. 15, and after that they can get insurance until open enrollment ends on March 31.
Melissa Harris, a communications student at Fresno State, stopped at a Covered California tent on campus Tuesday. She's paying $600 a month -- with help from family members -- for insurance through her former employer. She has diabetes, hypertension and other medical issues and lives on disability payments.
Under the Affordable Care Act, which prevents insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, Harris said she can afford health insurance on her own. "It's a godsend for me -- a blessing," Harris, 33, said.
Fresno State student Melissa Cruz, 23, was gathering information about Covered California health plans for herself -- and her mother. Only her father has health insurance, she said.
"I need health insurance," Cruz said. "I am a senior and I am going to graduate in the spring. I need that coverage."
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