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Casey Christie / The Californian

Clinica Sierra Vista CEO Stephen Schilling, right, introduces Covered California Executive Director Peter V. Lee Wednesday at East Bakersfield Community Health Center on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard during a brief press conference discussing enrollment efforts for Covered California in the community and California.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Peter V. Lee, Covered California Executive director, talks to the media Wednesday at a press conference at the East Bakersfield Community Health Center about the current enrollment efforts in the community in the new insurance program. Clinica Sierra Vista CEO Stephen Schilling listens in the background.

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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.

Covered California's executive director stopped by Bakersfield Wednesday afternoon to urge people to seek face-to-face help signing up for insurance.

Peter V. Lee visited the Clinica Sierra Vista East Bakersfield Community Health Center after he opened Covered California's Fresno call center Wednesday morning. He met privately with Clinica CEO Steve Schilling and other staff before holding a news conference, and then watching Clinica's staff help people apply for insurance.

Lee touted California's progress enrolling people in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Last week Covered California, the state's health insurance exchange, announced that through Nov. 12 nearly 60,000 Californians had picked plans offered on the exchange, and through October about 72,000 people were determined to likely be eligible for Medi-Cal. Regional numbers will be released at Covered California's board meeting Thursday in Sacramento.

Lee said local groups like Clinica are at the forefront of the push to get people insured.

"Most people as we go forward, in particular the next six weeks, will need people in their community to help them enroll, whether it's in Medi-Cal or in Covered California," Lee said.

Open enrollment continues through March, but people must sign up by Dec. 15 for their insurance coverage to begin Jan. 1. Lee said locals can visit www.coveredca.com to find certified enrollment counselors, insurance agents and county offices to help them sign up.

Local enrollment efforts got off to a bumpy start last month. Several Kern health insurance advocates and insurance agents said they weren't able to enroll people because of delays in the certification process and technical glitches, though some said things had greatly improved by last week.

Through Nov. 16, about 1,400 enrollment counselors had been authorized to help people enroll statewide but certification was still ongoing for another 4,225 counselors.

Asked if he was concerned about the lag in the certification process to get enrollment counselors helping people, Lee said, "Yes and no."

It is still early in open enrollment, Lee said, likening it to the first inning of a baseball game.

"Some of (counselors) had sticking points on the IT side. Some, it turns out the DOJ, Department of Justice, doesn't take two days, which we originally heard it was. It takes 10 days to do the security checks," he said.

"Things (take) longer than we thought it would, but we're confident we'll get virtually all of (the counselors) through by the end of November."

After observing a Clinica's counselor helping a woman fill out an application, Lee said Covered California is concerned about the President's announcement last week that states could extend the deadline for insurance companies to offer individual policies that don't meet the law's requirements through next year.

"Many Californians don't understand that while they have insurance, they often don't have the coverage they really need when they need it," Lee said. "The Affordable Care Act says every plan must have essential benefits. No gimmicks and gotchas."

Lee said that issue will be discussed at Thursday's Covered California board meeting.

For supporters of the health care reform law, Schilling said, the bumps have been frustrating.

But Schilling and Ana Velasquez, program manager for Clinica's health insurance assistance program in Kern County, said things are getting better and many people are interested in enrolling.

"Every day these systems seem to work more smoothly and more quickly. We're getting more and more peoplesigned up. Here's just today," Schilling said, leafing through a binder of sign-up sheets listing people who had been enrolled in some kind of coverage.

Still, he said, there is an urgency to show that the Affordable Care Act is working.

"We run the risk of losing the whole thing if we can't turn this around quickly (and) restore among the American people the fact that this is a product worth having and that we can figure out how to get it to you," Schilling said.