SACRAMENTO -- Caught in limbo once again, a million Californians on Friday found themselves waiting for answers on whether they can keep health plans that were supposed to be canceled during the tumultuous transition to President Barack Obama's landmark health law.

But it could be days, perhaps even weeks, before officials with the state's new insurance exchange and health insurers provide answers -- raising even more tensions as a Dec. 15 deadline looms to sign up for health coverage for the coming year.

The decision now rests with an obscure new state board. And some legislative experts say that the final decision must be made by the Legislature, which is now out of session.

An outreach booth at Santa Clara County Library Alum Rock branch on Oct. 1, 2013, the first day of signups for Covered California.
An outreach booth at Santa Clara County Library Alum Rock branch on Oct. 1, 2013, the first day of signups for Covered California. (Josie Lepe/Staff file)

"I was elated yesterday when I heard the news that we could go back to what we had before," said Danville resident Mark Harrigan, 60, who was hoping he could keep his family's Kaiser plan instead of a more expensive one. "It looks like we might be going back to square one."

Friday's uncertainty capped a roller coaster of a week for Harrigan and 5 million other Americans whose hopes were raised Thursday that they could keep their policies when Obama admitted he had misled them into believing they could "keep their plans" if they wanted. The president Thursday issued a directive allowing insurers to extend individual policies, many of which are cheaper but don't offer all the benefits required under the new health law.


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Obama's directive -- after weeks of public uproar over the canceled policies -- was designed to pour water on the political fires. But two key provisions of the directive have led to a scorching new debate:

First, state insurance commissioners must give their blessing to the directive. Second, the insurance companies also have to agree to continue providing health coverage through 2014.

Some states, from Vermont to Washington state, said they wouldn't follow Obama's directive. And in other states, California among them, insurers said they didn't know if they would agree to extend the plans.

At the heart of the matter is whether taking hundreds of thousands of younger and healthier people out of the state insurance exchange's "risk pool" would drive up insurers' costs.

Stephen Shivinsky, spokesman for Blue Shield of California, said that if the company is forced to extend its 2013 policies, the prices for those plans would have to remain the same because the company did not anticipate having to renew those plans. He said the amount of money the company would lose as a result would be "substantial."

Although California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has signed off on the Obama plan, the board of the state's new insurance exchange, Covered California, must also give its OK. The board is set to consider the matter at its monthly board meeting Thursday.

Two members of its board of directors are appointed by the governor, one by the Senate Rules Committee and one by the speaker of the Assembly.

"Of course we will consult with our partners, stakeholders and relevant state agencies and government regulatory agencies," Larry Hicks, a spokesman for Covered California, said Friday.

Asked if it's possible the board could make a decision earlier, Hicks said he didn't know.

However, some legal experts are arguing that a vote by the group's board will not be enough to implement the changes. That's because the health care exchange was created and is bound by a state law. Its provisions -- including the deadline to cancel plans that are out of compliance by Dec. 31 -- cannot be altered without an amendment to the law, experts say.

And the Legislature isn't scheduled to reconvene until January, unless the governor calls a special session.

Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said lawmakers could be called back to Sacramento to revise the law, but he cautioned that it's too soon to know what will be needed. Perez sponsored the legislation that created the state's exchange.

"There's a lot of fallout from the president's decision and how it's going to affect the marketplace in California," Maviglio said. "If legislative action is needed, that option is always available."

Covered California's staff is scurrying to evaluate all of the state's options, said Diana Dooley, secretary for health and human services and a member of the exchange's board.

"When you're making changes of this magnitude, you need time to smooth out the rough edges," Dooley said. "We want to make a decision with a maximum amount of information that does the greatest good for the greatest number."

Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said a member of his team will attend next week's meeting of Covered California to learn more about the options before Steinberg makes his own recommendations on how to move forward.

"We're very interested to hear some of the pros and cons on the directions we could take given the circumstances," Hedlund said. "It would be premature to make a judgment yet because our options have not yet been hashed out."

Contact Tracy Seipel at tseipel@mercurynews.com or 408 275-0140. Follow her at Twitter.com/taseipel.