SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Tuesday marked the start of open enrollment in California’s new health care exchange as the rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act continues.

Covered California is one of the state-run health care marketplaces being set up around the U.S. as mandated by the act, passed by Congress in 2010.

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Uninsured California residents were able to sign up for coverage starting Tuesday at, by phone, or at a number of outreach events taking place around the Bay Area and state.

“This is a historic day for California and for the nation,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, at a launch event in San Francisco Tuesday morning.

Those who already have health insurance do not need to sign up for new coverage or make any changes. Those on Medicare or Medicaid also need not take any action.

However, uninsured Americans who don’t purchase coverage will face a fine of $95 or 1 percent of their yearly income—whichever is greater—beginning in January.

Lee said the new health care law has faced opposition in other states but not as much here.

“In California, we have the wind at our back,” he said.

Lee said those in charge of Covered California “picked the best health care plans in the state through a competitive process.”

“We’re going to get Californians the health care they need and deserve,” he said.

Under the new law, health care providers cannot deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. Certain groups, including low-income residents, qualify for federal subsidies.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said Tuesday is “an extraordinary day of hope for our children and our families.”

Torlakson said there are about 1 million students in California without health coverage and that he believes the Affordable Care Act will reduce absenteeism and increase student performance.

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“We see huge opportunity in this,” he said.

Uninsured Bay Area residents were being encouraged to sign up for health coverage at a variety of events around the region.

Covered California spokeswoman Angie Blanchette said program organizers do not expect an overwhelming number of people to sign up right away.

“We expect the numbers to increase in November and December as people learn more about the various health care plans available to them and make an informed decision,” Blanchette said.

People can visit for more information, or call (888) 975-1142.

A Covered California call center opened in Concord Tuesday, and more than 160 customers service agents were fielding calls there.

Open enrollment began Tuesday and will end on March 31, and coverage under newly purchased health plans will begin as soon as Jan. 1.

Blanchette said the federal government shutdown that went into effect on Monday night because of the budget stalemate in Congress is not affecting implementation of the Covered California program.

She said employees are fielding calls at three call centers in California, including the one in Concord, and are still working despite the federal shutdown since they are state employees.

Covered California officials were also holding an enrollment outreach event for the public from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday at City College of San Francisco’s Ram Plaza.

In Alameda County, county Supervisor Wilma Chan held an outreach event at 10:15 a.m. in Building R at Merritt College. Santa Cruz County officials will host a similar event on the county courthouse steps at 1 p.m.

A soft launch in late August helped Covered California customer service representatives get a feel for the system, well ahead of Tuesday’s formal launch, which includes assistance for foreign language speakers.

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