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Grace period for health insurance ends Friday

SACRAMENTO — Friday will be the end of the grace period to get health insurance starting Jan. 1 for consumers who were frustrated in their attempts to sign up by Monday's deadline, the agency running California's health exchange said Tuesday.

The grace period was announced Monday after it became clear that thousands of people were unable to get coverage because the website and call centers were overwhelmed. It applies to anyone who attempted to start an application before the deadline, although many people were not even able to get that far.

Santiago Lucero, spokesman for Covered California, said insurers need time to review policy applications so coverage can start in the new year. He encouraged people to keep trying to reach a call center, even if they have no record of their attempts to get coverage before the deadline.

"We will take their word, on an honor code," he said. "If they made a good-faith effort and cannot prove they went on online, we will help them case by case."

He said there is a chance the grace period for considering those applications could be extended beyond Friday, especially if it becomes clear that people are continuing to have trouble getting through the system. But that decision would be made only after Covered California officials consulted with insurance companies, brokers and others who are trying to help people sign up.

His advice to consumers: "Be patient; keep calling."

Statistics posted Tuesday to the agency's website said the average wait time for the call centers was 43 minutes.

Monday's deadline was only for insurance to start with the new year. Consumers have until March 31 to get health care coverage and avoid a federal tax penalty in 2014.

Though the inability to enroll through the website or reach a counselor in one of the state's three call centers on Monday was frustrating, it also illustrated how interest in getting coverage under the federal health law has exploded as the deadline approached.

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