Obamacare 'fine' not dandy, says California exchange boss

Homepage of Covered California
Source: Covered California
Homepage of Covered California

The head of California's Obamacare exchange has a salty message for people who haven't signed up for health insurance yet: don't "p---" away your money by failing to get covered!

Covered California CEO Peter Lee's blunt words Tuesday came as he warned Golden State residents about increased fines under Obamacare this year for not having health insurance, and as he announced that more than 217,000 new customers had signed up for plans sold by the exchange.

Those fines, paid in the form of tax penalties, are at least $325 per adult, and half that amount per child, but can be as high as 2 percent of household income in 2015.

In a briefing with reporters, Lee noted that a family of four that opted not to get coverage in 2015 could end up paying "a $1,000 penalty that is essentially being p----- away."

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Instead of paying that fine, Lee said, that same family could use the money to buy insurance through the Covered California exchange, which would protect the family financially if they needed health-care services that without a health plan would strain their budget.

"Every month a consumer goes without coverage is a month of risk," he said.

He noted that nearly 90 percent of Covered California's 1.2 million customers in 2014 received federal subsidies to help pay for their premiums, and, "Some of them are literally paying $1 per month. Some of them are paying $12 per month."

Lee announced that the exchange is increasing "messaging" about the potential fines through social media, paid advertising and service channels as open enrollment in Obamacare enters its final full month. The enrollment period ends Feb. 15.

Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee at a news conference.
Getty Images
Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee at a news conference.

He said that "we want to use the tax penalty" as an incentive to get currently uninsured people to sign up in the state. "We want to get out the message, loud and clear, that if you sign up at any time during open enrollment, you will not be subject to the penalty."

"For many consumers, understanding the penalty makes a difference," Lee said. "Many do not understand the penalty, or the size of the penalty, and that's exactly why we're ramping up the messaging about the penalty."

That messaging includes a chart showing the fines people of different incomes and family makeups face in 2015 for going without insurance. A family of four making just $30,000 annually would face a $975 fine, according to the chart, while the same-size family making $100,000 would be on the hook for $1,588.

Lee noted that there are estimates that as many as 1 million or so Californians could be subject to the fine, although he said there are exemptions from that penalty, for things that include being homeless, filing for bankruptcy recently, being a victim of domestic violence and receiving a shut-off notice from a utility company.

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Covered California, which was the most successful state-run Obamacare exchange last year in terms of sheer numbers, has a goal of enrolling 1.7 million in private plans this year. To get to that tally, the exchange is aiming to re-enroll its 1.2 million customers from last year, and get 500,000 new customers.

Based on the fact that more than 217,000 new customers have signed up so far, "we're quite confident that we're going to be able to hit or meet the 500,000 enrollment goal," Lee said.

There are two looming enrollment deadlines that Lee, and other Obamacare advocates, expect to spike insurance sign-ups.

One is Thursday's deadline for getting coverage that starts Feb. 1. The other is the Feb. 15 close of open enrollment—after that, people will be allowed to enroll in individual private insurance plans only if they have a special life event, such as getting married, divorced, moving to a new state, losing a job or having a child.

California's exchange has not yet released information on how many of the 1.2 million were automatically re-enrolled in their existing coverage, as opposed to choosing another plan or withdrawing from their current plan.

But Lee did say "a very significant proportion of people" were automatically re-enrolled. He noted, however, that to maintain enrollment, people must pay their monthly premiums.

"Things look very strong on re-enrollment," he said.