While the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act has earned the Obama administration two months' worth of scathing criticism -- who knew health care reform could make a website sick? -- a more encouraging story has unfolded in our state.

Covered California, one of 16 state-run health insurance exchanges that administer the plan independent of the federal government, quietly has gone about finding coverage for thousands of uninsured clients.

From its first week (28,699 applications) to its seventh (71,188), the state exchange has attracted growing interest each day. By Nov. 23, total applicants exceeded 385,000. About 80,000 were enrolled in a plan.

Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state’s health insurance exchange, announces Nov. 13, 2013, that nearly 35,000 people signed
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state's health insurance exchange, announces Nov. 13, 2013, that nearly 35,000 people signed up for health insurance during the first month of open enrollment from Oct. 1 through Nov. 2. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

In a typical week, its website (www.coveredca.com) gets more than 400,000 unique visits, and its counselors handle more than 90,000 calls (at 855-857-0445). Plus, about 7,500 licensed insurance agents have been certified to advise and enroll customers. And no, they don't charge for those services.

Building something from nothing is never easy, as the federal government has ably demonstrated, and that's especially true when administering a program so complex it requires 2,000 pages to explain.

Do you want the platinum, gold, silver or bronze coverage tier? Do you want a PPO or an HMO plan? Do you have dependents? What's your ZIP code? How about your annual income? A bar exam has fewer questions.


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The state exchange has not been without its hiccups, including online glitches and caller waits of 15 minutes or more. The big concern now is the mountain of paper applications written by agents when the system was down that must be manually entered by Dec. 23. Still, for an operation barely 2 months old, things could be worse.

The ACA goal is for all Americans to have health insurance complying with the new law's standards; penalties can be assessed to those who don't. An early question was whether California would mirror the president's decision to allow extensions to those with noncompliant policies because of delays in getting the national website up. Nope, said Covered California's governing board. Its system has been working.

The state exchange also stepped up to help small businesses find coverage for employees, even though that's not required of those with fewer than 50 workers. The Small Business Health Options Program helps companies navigate the complexities of available tax credits, which factor in staff size, average employee earnings and premiums paid by employers. (Complexity is a standard element of government plans.)

The wisest thing California Covered did was to make partners of health insurance underwriters, some of whom feared they'd been pushed aside under the act. Licensed agents, once certified, can enroll applicants.

There still are occasional confusions, Pleasant Hill broker Colleen Callahan said, about which doctors are in which plans and who qualifies for subsidies. Plus, some Medicare patients mistakenly believe they need to sign up (they don't). This is a work in progress, remember.

Callahan said it's hard to generalize about insurance rates under the new law. Some people, especially with subsidies, will find bargains through the exchange. Others -- she includes herself -- will do better shopping on their own.

Nothing about the Affordable Care Act is simple. Nor has it been universally embraced. But you'll find more reason for encouragement in California than you will in Washington, D.C.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.