California sees Obamacare surge as open enrollment ends for 2014

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Thanks to a final April surge, California's Obamacare marketplace enrolled a total of 1.4 million people in private health insurance plans, state officials announced on Thursday, beating a federal forecast by just over 800,000 enrollees.

The marketplace also signed up an additional 1.9 million in the state's Medicaid program for the poor.

California's Obamacare enrollments are among 7.5 million people nationally who have signed up, according to federal officials.

Peter V. Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state's Obamacare health insurance marketplace, called that "a huge number" and said enrollees "are part of history."

The country's first open enrollment period for coverage under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law ended in most states on March 31. California and a handful of others kept their doors open longer, citing technical difficulties that kept some customers from accessing Obamacare websites. The extension paid off: on the final day, April 15, Covered California had more than 50,000 sign-ups, a one-day record.

That may have come in part because Tuesday was also the deadline for filing 2013 income tax returns. This year many tax preparers, both in-person and electronic, reminded people that the law requires them to have health insurance this year or pay a tax penalty next year.

Two insurance companies dominated California's Obamacare market. Anthem Blue Cross, part of Wellpoint, got 30 percent of the total by the end of March (the most recent data on carriers), and non-profit Blue Shield took 27 percent. Health Net got 19 percent and Kaiser Permanente, 17 percent, with dozens of other carriers splitting the rest.

From April 1 to 15, 205,685 Californians enrolled in private health insurance through the Covered California exchange. . The state improved significantly on its early enrollment of Latinos, a key demographic group for Democrats who hope to turn Obamacare's successes into votes in November's mid-term elections. Latino enrollment reached 305,106, 28 percent of the total, 30 percent above where it stood at the end of March.

Young adults 18 to 34 years old, whose participation is considered key to keeping a check on premiums, make up 29 percent of Covered California enrollment. They are 25 percent of the state's population.

People 45 to 64, whose medical costs are expected to be relatively high, make up 48 percent of California's enrollees.

Of those enrolled in Covered California plans, 88 percent are eligible for financial subsidies to defray the cost of monthly premiums.

Insurance companies report that 85 percent of enrollees have paid their first month's premium, Lee said on Thursday. Although critics of Obamacare have pointed to the 15 percent or more who do not pay as evidence of the law's failures, Lee told the Reuters healthcare summit this month that many non-payments are because would-be customers gain health coverage through their jobs and no longer need their Covered California plan.

(Reporting by Sharon Begley; editing by Andrew Hay)