The first deadline to sign up for health insurance for 2019 through California's health insurance exchange is quickly approaching.
Those who want to have their health insurance coverage to start on Jan. 1, 2019, must sign up on Covered California by midnight on Friday, Dec. 21.
Unlike the federal open-enrollment period, which ends Dec. 15, California's open enrollment continues through Jan. 15.
So far, roughly 1.2 million people have renewed their insurance through Covered California. That number is slightly lower than last year's. The agency said the reason could be a lack of awareness.
Though the open enrollment period started Oct. 15, the agency decided to wait until after the mid-term election to start advertising. Another reason for lower enrollment is the removal of the individual mandate penalty.
The original Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," required everyone to have insurance or pay a penalty. The Republican Congress, in December 2017, removed the penalty effective Jan. 1, 2019.
"While we know that the financial help offered through Covered California is the big motivator for many people to enroll, with the penalty removed we do expect some consumers to roll the dice and go without health coverage," Covered California executive director Peter V. Lee said.
The agency said enrollment is expected to drop between 7 to 18 percent because of removal of the mandate.
The high cost was another reason why some are forgoing health insurance. Trey Barkley, 32, went without insurance last year after his company stopped providing health insurance for its employees.
"I could not afford it," he said. "The cost was too much for me per month because I ended making just enough money that it was going to cost way out of my range."
Barkley was referring to subsidies offered by Covered Calfornia. About 90 percent of people enrolled through Covered California qualify for some sort of subsidy, which covered an average of 80 percent of their monthly premium, the agency said.
According to its research, 82 percent of uninsured people do not know that they qualify for financial assistance.
"Being covered means you are protected from medical bills that can range from tens of thousands of dollars into the millions," Lee said. "That's why it is so important to take a look their options and find out if they are eligible for financial assistance to help bring that coverage within reach."
Craig Gussin, a licensed health insurance underwriter with the Auerbach & Gussin Insurance and Financial Services in Carlsbad, said high-deductible policies are available for as little as $1 a month for qualified California residents.
Gussin said the Bronze-level plans typically offer three doctor visits per year for $75 per visit. Those basic plans have a $6,300 deductible, and typically pay 100 percent of medical costs after the patient has paid a total of about $7,000 in "out-of-pocket" costs.
Despite that high deductible and co-pay, such basic coverage can help the policyholder avoid crushing medical debt and possible bankruptcy from an unexpected major illness or accident.
Nearly 250,000 people are uninsured in the San Diego-Carlsbad area, of that more than 102,000 are eligible for coverage through Covered California. Statewide, an estimated 1.1 million uninsured people are eligible to enroll in Covered California or Medi-Cal, the agency said.
Gussin said his typical customer pays about $50 to $100 a month for a more comprehensive Covered California policy with a lower deductible. Some families qualify for premium subsidies of up to $1,000 a month on a $1,800 premium.
Barkley said he plans to look at Covered California's site again this year to see if he qualifies for any subsidies now that his girlfriend has health coverage through her work.
Covered California has a Shop and Compare tool for people to see if they qualify for any assistance.