Californians scrambling to pay their first month's health insurance premium, originally due Monday, now have until Jan. 15 to do so, according to the state's health insurance exchange.

Covered California announced the reprieve late Saturday, saying its 11 participating health insurance companies had agreed to the extension, which also assures those companies have time to mail invoices, and for consumers to have received their insurance documents.

The exchange said payment for coverage taking effect Jan. 1 must be in the hands of the health insurance companies by Jan. 15, and not simply postmarked or in-transit.

The extension is welcome news for people like Woodside resident Jennifer Jones, who last month broke her pelvis and has had to have follow-up care this month with her doctor who agreed to see her, but was concerned she didn't have proof of insurance.

What's frustrating Jones is that she mailed a payment on Dec. 9 to the insurance company that covers both herself and her husband, but the check still hasn't cleared their account. Panicked, the couple recently paid once more, this time online. While they received an email confirmation for that payment, it also hasn't registered in their bank account.

Jones, who runs her own eponymous marketing advisory firm, spent hours on the phone Friday trying to get through to her insurance carrier, to no avail.

Still processing

"It's encouraging to hear about the extension, because I feel like I have more time," Jones said with relief Sunday. But she's annoyed as well over the confusion and the anxiety these delays and snafus have caused her. The same is true for many others trying to successfully access plans.

"What it says to me is that they're obviously scrambling and not able to process everything. That's how I would interpret the reason they're extending the deadline," said Jones. "It's frustrating."

In the last two weeks of December, the volume of enrollment applications increased substantially for the exchange and the insurance companies. At the last minute, Covered California extended its Dec. 23 sign-up deadline to Dec. 27.

In a press release it posted Saturday about the extension, Kaiser Permanente said it is still processing enrollment files and expects all invoices to be mailed by the end of next week.

"Members should not be concerned if they haven't received an invoice yet," said Ken Hunter, senior vice president of Kaiser's insurance exchange operations. "As long as payment is postmarked or submitted online by Jan. 15, Kaiser Permanente will honor their membership retroactive to Jan. 1."

Direct notification

Covered California also said that about 200,000 households with coverage due to take effect Jan. 1, and who supplied their email addresses to Covered California, will receive direct notification about the payment deadline extension.

Health insurance companies stress that this is a one-time payment deadline extension, and that payment for coverage is due at the beginning of each month.

Open enrollment continues through March 31. But Covered California officials say the earlier consumers sign up for and submit a payment, the sooner their insurance policies will start.

The earliest consumers can now get coverage is Feb. 1, and to do so they will need to sign up by Jan. 15. The next deadline for coverage beginning March 1 requires consumers to sign up by Feb. 15. That same pattern of deadline and coverage start date continues through the March 31 deadline to get coverage in 2014.

Consumers can go to www.coveredca.com for instructions on how to pay their premium.

Contact Tracy Seipel at tseipel@mercurynews.com or 408 920-5343 and follow her at Twitter.com/taseipel.