SACRAMENTO, California — Nearly 870,000 Californians have signed up for an insurance policy through the state's health care exchange, the federal government reported Tuesday, as the state intensifies efforts to boost participation and target younger people ahead of the March 31 enrollment deadline.
California leads the nation in enrollments, accounting for roughly 20 percent of all sign-ups across the country. Nationally, about 4.2 million people have enrolled in individual insurance plans under President Barack Obama's health care reforms, according to the data released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
While impressive, California's 869,000 sign-ups by Feb. 28 were 84 percent of the federal government's original target of just more than 1 million for that date. That target comes from a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services projection a few weeks before enrollment began last October.
The federal government projected that 1.3 million Californians would sign up for individual coverage through the exchange by March 31, the end of open enrollment for the year. Expectations have been lowered nationally and in many states as technical problems overwhelmed many of the sign-up efforts.
More than a dozen states either met or exceeded the federal government's original projections through February, according to the report released Tuesday. They include several that, like California, operate their own insurance marketplaces: Colorado, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.
"We expect to finish strong," said Larry Hicks, a spokesman for Covered California, the agency running the state's health insurance exchange. "The needle is still moving upward ... and we're pushing hard to make it as high as possible and get as many people enrolled as possible."
Covered California has been boosting its marketing efforts in recent weeks to target younger people in general and Latinos in particular.
People in the 18 to 34 age group are especially coveted by insurers because they are generally healthier and cost less to cover, helping insurance companies balance out the cost of covering older people who require more medical services. The industry's general goal is to have about 40 percent of enrollees in that age group, but the proportion in California and nationwide so far is about a quarter.
If not enough young people sign up, it could lead insurers to raise policy premiums in the future, but Hicks said some experts believe the current age mix is sufficient to make the insurance pool financially workable.
Latinos are important because they account for roughly half of California's uninsured population and tend to be younger than the general population. The Department of Health and Human Services report did not include ethnic or racial breakdowns, but lawmakers and activists in California have so far been disappointed with the Latino enrollment.
Covered California will release its own updated enrollment figures on Thursday and plans to do so with an event on Olvera Street, the historic Mexican Marketplace in downtown Los Angeles. The exchange also has enlisted Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, to produce radio spots and Internet videos promoting health insurance.
"We've tried to sharpen our message among those demographics," Hicks said.
A February report from the Department of Health and Human Services says California is home to 2.8 million Latinos who are uninsured and eligible for health coverage through the exchange, Medicaid or a government-sponsored health insurance program for children.
The Affordable Care Act also allowed states to expand Medicaid, a state-federal program that provides health insurance to the poor and lower-income people. In California, where the program is known as Medi-Cal, an additional 850,000 people have been determined to be eligible for the safety-net program.