A new era in health care coverage began Tuesday with a lot of interest and a few hiccups in Kern County.
Responses from the leaders of agencies hoping to enroll people in health insurance ranged from optimistic to overwhelmed on Day One of open enrollment for Covered California, the state's health insurance exchange.
"As with anything that rolls out brand new, are there kinks in the system? Sure ... There's no perfect rollout," said Diego Martinez, chief operations officer for Omni Family Health, a federally qualified health center with sites throughout Kern County.
Martinez and other health care administrators said many locals were curious Tuesday both about the new health care options available to them and how to sign up.
Omni Family Health's enrollment counselors are in training this week and next, so Martinez said this first week is more of an educational stage.
At Clinica Sierra Vista, administrator Bill Phelps said there will also be a delay in offering hands-on help with Covered California applications.
"There's more hoops to jump through than what we anticipated. It's sort of like (Covered California is) laying out the process as we go as opposed to having it fully laid out ahead of time," said Phelps, Clinica's chief of programs.
Phelps said he just learned Tuesday that Clinica's 24 Kern enrollment counselor,s who were prepared to help people with the Covered California application process, could not access their online accounts until administrators cleared a few more steps. Phelps said he has to complete an online training so he can get emails verifying the counselors' background checks.
"We are able to enroll people into regular Medi-Cal" and direct them to the Kern Medical Center Health Plan, which rolls into Medi-Cal next year, Phelps said. "We're still working, it's just that we can't do anything with Covered California until we jump through all of these hoops."
Covered California spokeswoman Anne Gonzales said she could not speak to that issue because she had not heard of that hold up.
Gonzales said the swell of interest slowed down the exchange's website but improvements are in the works.
"We're going gangbusters here, we have so much interest," she said.
Paul Sheldon, president and owner of Paul Sheldon Insurance and Benefits Planning, said his office phones have been ringing constantly with questions about the Affordable Care Act in the past few months. But no one has asked him to walk them through the Covered California application process yet.
"People understand that this is not going to take effect until January 1 so it's not like the house is on fire so they have to rush in and get things done this week," Sheldon said.
Julia Gonzalez, a 33-year-old single mom who lives in Bakersfield, said the health care law comes at the perfect time for her.
"I definitely have been looking forward to this and I think it's a great thing," she said.
Gonzalez does not have health insurance. She found out Monday that a recent ultrasound she had following an abnormal breast exam also came back unusual. The college student works parttime in a law office. She used Covered California's online calculator to learn she could qualify for Medi-Cal.
On Tuesday afternoon, she called Covered California. Gonzalez said she's savvy enough to have applied online but wanted to go through the phone process in order to share her experience with others. After holding for 40 minutes, a woman took Gonzalez' income and family size, and told her she was eligible for Medi-Cal. She was then transferred to second representative who answered immediately.
"I don't think that anybody has ever told me so quickly that I qualify for Medi-Cal," Gonzalez said.
After her qualification for Medi-Cal was confirmed, Gonzalez had the option of giving more information over the phone or receiving a packet in the mail. She chose the latter.
The call took 52 minutes and afterward, Gonzalez said she will probably go online Wednesday and fill out an application. Despite the wait, she was pleased with the experience.
"I knew that it was going to take a while so I wasn't like frustrated," she said. "It was very easy, they were very friendly."
She took to social media to encourage others to explore their options as well.
"If you did not previously qualify for Medi-Cal, apply again!" she posted on Facebook.
An estimated 38,000 additional Kern County residents will qualify for Medi-Cal -- the state's version of Medicaid -- next year under the expansion of that program. Approximately 64,000 people may qualify for premium tax credits to reduce their cost of buying insurance on the exchange, according to spring estimates by Families USA, a nonprofit health care consumer advocacy group.