LOS ANGELES (CNS) - California's health exchange is struggling to keep pace with a surge of applicants who are encountering long waits and website  problems as they try to meet a Dec. 23 deadline, it was reported today.

In response to higher-than-expected demand, the Covered California  exchange said it is adding staff and expanding its capacity to answer consumer  calls. It received 17,000 calls in less than an hour Wednesday, more than it  received in an entire day in recent weeks, the Los Angeles Times reported. The  exchange is also trying to dig through a backlog of 25,000 paper applications  filed in October and November.

Dec. 23 is the sign-up deadline to have insurance starting Jan. 1, and  consumers must pay the initial monthly premium by Jan. 5. After that,  enrollment in the exchange lasts through March 31. The state postponed the  initial payment deadline to Jan. 5 to give cash-strapped consumers more time  during the holidays.

``We have been running strong all week, and at times we have exceeded  the capacity of our phone lines," exchange spokesman Dana Howard said in  remarks reported by The Times. ``The demand is more than we projected. But the  bottom line is folks will be able to get themselves enrolled for Jan. 1."

During the first two months of enrollment under the Affordable Care Act,  California consistently outperformed the federal marketplace in 36 other  states. Through mid-November, the state has enrolled nearly 80,000 people in  private health plans, and 140,000 more appear to have qualified for Medi-Cal,  the state's Medicaid program, according to The Times.

ut ``running into these difficulties can discourage people from signing  up, and it doesn't bode well for future enrollment," Shana Alex Lavarreda,  director of health insurance studies at the UCLA Center for Health Policy  Research, told The Times. ``It remains to be seen whether everyone can get  through."