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Casey Christie / The Californian

Linda Flores, certified enrollment counselor for Covered California and a Clinica Sierra Vista employee, helps a patient, left, Wednesday, at Clinica Sierra Vista enroll in the new health care program while Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee, right, watches the online enrollment procedure.

Local enrollment in California's new health insurance exchange got off to a slow start last month, according to new numbers released Thursday, but there are signs the pace has picked up.

About 1,600 Kern County residents applied for an insurance plan through the Covered California exchange in October -- the first month of enrollment -- and 298 people actually signed up.

While Kern accounts for 2.3 percent of California's population, it only accounted for 1 percent of Covered California enrollments last month.

The numbers came from a report delivered by Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee to the agency's board at a meeting in Sacramento.

The leaders of two local organizations striving to get people signed up said the numbers may reflect early snags in the enrollment process that have largely cleared up. Local groups have complained about how tricky it was to get enrollment counselors certified.

Clinica Sierra Vista CEO Steve Schilling said Thursday he wasn't "blown away" by the first local numbers, but it's still early in open enrollment.

"It's only been in the last two to three weeks that (Clinica has) actually been bringing people into the program," he said.

Lee's report did not show how many residents had signed up for Medi-Cal.

That program -- the state's version of Medicaid -- is expanding its eligibility rules under health care reform. The Kern County Department of Human Services has estimated about 38,000 county residents will qualify for expanded Medi-Cal.

Thursday's report did offer the first glimpse at how many people have signed up for insurance through the exchange in different parts of the state. What plans people can buy and how much they pay varies by where they live in the state's 19 pricing regions -- among other factors.

Kern County makes up region 14.

Jan Hefner, director of the Community Health Initiative of Kern County, was surprised by another finding released Thursday -- that most Kern residents who selected a plan on the state's health insurance exchange were not eligible for government subsidies to help foot the bill. Only 40 residents were.

Hefner said the lateness and difficulty getting agencies' certified enrollment counselors approved may have played a big role in that number.

After delays last month, the number of local people qualified to help Kern residents enroll is growing, Hefner said. As of Tuesday, 18 enrollment entities in Kern County had 160 counselors who are either certified or in the process of becoming certified, she said.

Hefner said people also don't understand that the troubled federal health insurance exchange is different from the state of California's, and that things are going more smoothly here.

"People's perceptions have been hampered somewhat by all of the negative publicity" surrounding the federal government's website, she said.

Schilling ventured that the Kern County residents who signed up early were savvy enough to navigate Covered California's website on their own or were pushing their insurance agents for help signing up.

They could also be people with pre-existing medical conditions who were turned down for insurance in the past, he said.

"I think (these people are a) very preliminary, very early and very unique population," Schilling said.

Though regional numbers for Medi-Cal enrollments were not released, Schilling said Clinica -- one of the largest federally qualified health care centers in the country -- enrolled more than 1,000 people in Medi-Cal last month. Clinica normally would have signed 400 to 450 people up for the program.

Pam Holiwell, assistant director of the Kern County Department of Human Services, said between Oct. 1 and Nov. 16, the department took in 670 applications from people who will qualify for expanded Medi-Cal come Jan. 1. That doesn't include applications from places like Clinica or applications that people filled out for themselves online.

Statewide, 30,830 Californians enrolled in a plan through the exchange in October, but enrollment seems to be gaining steam this month.

Nearly 80,000 people had picked a plan via the exchange as of Tuesday.

About 135,000 Californians who completed applications will likely qualify for Medi-Cal, a news release said. On top of that, the bulk of the 600,000 California residents enrolled in their local Low Income Health Program will be moved into Medi-Cal on Jan. 1, according to the California Department of Health Care Services.

At a bustling Clinica health center in east Bakersfield Wednesday afternoon, staff members said local enrollment is accelerating.

Now that Clinica has more than 40 counselors certified, Ana Velasquez, program manager for Clinica's health insurance assistance program in Kern County, wants people to come to a Clinica location near them for face-to-face help.

"We can go through the process with you, we can assist you. If you have doubts, we will provide you the information that you need," she said.

On Wednesday afternoon, several of the clinic's enrollment counselors typed potential enrollees' personal information into online applications. California City resident George Vergara, 63, sat snuggly between the wall of enrollment counselor Tannia Hernandez's cubicle and her desk waiting to find out what he and his wife, Alfonsa Vergara, qualified for.

"My situation that I have right now is really bad because three months ago I had a heart attack and no insurance, so I'm way up to my neck in bills," he said.

Vergara has been uninsured since he lost his job in 2006 when the plastics company he worked for moved to Pennsylvania. He racked up $111,000 in bills from his heart attack and on Thursday had to go pick up medication costing $400, he said. He and Alfonsa, 59, survive on his Social Security benefits.

"I'm looking desperately to find any kind of insurance that might be able to help me in the future," he said.

The application took longer Wednesday because the website was running slow, but Hernandez helped the Vergaras finish it.

George Vergara qualified for Medi-Cal starting Jan. 1, and Alfonsa Vergara picked a silver-level plan from Blue Shield of California. She qualified for about $7,000 a year in tax credits, bringing her premium to just $20 a month, Hernandez said.

"I feel great," George Vergara said Thursday morning. Having insurance will lift "a lot of weight" off their shoulders.