The state jumped through all sorts of hoops to make sure it was ready for a deluge of applications on the last day of open enrollment for Covered California Monday.
Didn't work. The Covered California health insurance exchange portal crashed sporadically, anyway.
"This is the worst possible day for this," an exasperated Ana Velasquez lamented, pausing briefly from her work assisting would-be enrollees who began lining up outside the East Bakersfield Community Health Center at 6 a.m. Monday.
As of 2 p.m., the clinic had taken about 76 applications for health insurance -- sort of.
Unable to process applications electronically, the certified enrollment counselors at the center, which is affiliated with Clinica Sierra Vista, prepared paper applications.
What wasn't clear to Velasquez was whether those applications would be considered compliant with the deadline if the Covered California portal didn't become functional again until after the deadline.
"These families are leaving here today believing they're OK, they're safe, because they came in before the deadline," Velasquez said. "If they find out later they missed it, there are going to be a lot of really angry people."
Officials at Covered California, the state's health benefits exchange, said Monday evening that paper applications would be honored.
In fact, any application finalized between now and April 15 will be considered compliant as long as a certified enrollment counselor or licensed agent essentially vouches for the applicant, saying he or she tried on or before Monday but couldn't get through due to technical difficulties or jammed phone lines.
Giving applicants until April 15 to both start applications and "cross the finish line" was not a deadline extention, insisted Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee. Monday's deadline was firm, but counselors are essentially on an honor system to say that's when the application was begun, he said.
The plan was always for the portal to have limited functionality Monday in order to free up bandwidth for an onslaught of anticipated traffic, Lee said.
The "preview plans" portion of the website was taken offline, for instance, because the same information could be found in the site's "shop and compare" section.
Lee said Monday morning that the portal was "working but slow." If it got too slow, he said, applicants would be forced to log off after answering the last question on the application to make room for others on the site.
But even that failed to keep the portal working all day. Velasquez said her counselors couldn't even start applications online, much less finish them.
Lee said there was simply no way to handle the volume of visitors, which he estimated at 80,000 an hour statewide.
"Obviously we need to expand system capacity, but with well over a four-fold increase over the biggest day in December, we weren't able to build the pipes big enough," he said.
Dec. 23 was the deadline for applicants to enroll for coverage effective Jan. 1, but Covered California offered a grace period for several days after that.
As of 2 a.m. Monday, the state had 1.2 million people enrolled in Covered California plans, and another 1.5 million in expanded Medi-Cal, according to the state. Along with creating the health insurance exchange, the Affordable Care Act expanded eligibility for Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program for the poor.
The law also created tax penalties of $95 or 1 percent of adjusted gross income (whichever is greater) for anyone who did not have health insurance through Covered California or elsewhere by Monday's deadline.
Consumers who've had a change in life circumstances such as losing a job can sign up at any time, and so can patients eligible for Medi-Cal. Others will have to wait for the next open enrollment period in the fall.
Velasquez said she knew there would be a lot of procrastinators showing up on the deadline for open enrollment, but Monday's traffic exceeded even her expectations of a manageable last-minute surge.
"We're overwhelmed," she said. "Did you see that line outside? It's been like this all day."
After about 45 minutes in that line, Wevone Tucker, 42, shifted her weight from foot to foot and craned her neck to see how far she had to go.
Tucker wasn't bitter, though.
"It's my fault. I procrastinated," she said, shrugging.
Tucker has the option of buying health insurance through work, but the single mother said she can't afford her employer's health plan, and she wasn't able to explore alternatives online because she doesn't own a computer.
Yareli Cruz, 22, was aware that clinic counselors couldn't access the Covered California portal Monday afternoon, but decided to stay in line and take her chances, even with a 2-year-old in a stroller who was arching his back and whimpering in protest.
"He's bored," she said, gently pushing the stroller back and forth in a rocking motion. "But I have to have insurance, so..."