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Tracking Health Care Exchange From Consumer To Call Center

Jessica Robinson

Washington’s health exchange has been up and running for a month now. It got off to a rocky start—from the temporary shut down on its first day to the recent errors in calculating tax credits. Even so, Washington’s technical problems pale in comparison to the federal website’s. We have two reports checking in on Washington’s health exchange. We’ll hear from a call center in Spokane. But first, we begin with KUOW’s Ruby de Luna in Seattle, who talked with some of the users of the website.

Charles Redell is a freelance writer and barista in Seattle. As a freelancer, it’s been hard to find affordable health insurance.

REDELL: “I really like having health insurance for peace of mind. I’m a healthy person, no problems, but as I’m getting older, I’ll be 40 in December, it’s more there on my mind.”

Not long after the state’s health exchange opened, Redell checked it out with no problems. He liked being able to go to one site and look at plans side by side…

REDELL: “Instead of getting packets from one guy that’s two inches thick, and three inches thick from another, and they use totally different language and they’re on paper and they’re spread out on my dining table. It’s click, compare this, and you get a chart, and it’s just makes sense.”

Redell says the process took him about 25 minutes. But for some people it’s taken weeks.

ADCOCK: “There’s my wife’s green card, there’s my passport…”

On Jim Adcock’s dining table there’s a stack of documents he’s been trying to upload to the health exchange to show proof of eligibility. He wants to buy insurance for himself, his wife, and two daughters. It sounds straight forward enough, but….

ADCOCK: “My complication is that I have a German wife but she has a green card, but I always thought if you had a green card, it’s like having a passport. But why should that make it any harder?”

Adcock has been struggling for a month with a litany of technical problems. First he couldn’t upload the documents online. Then he couldn’t get an update on his application status. He couldn’t get answers through the call center either. And when he recently checked his online account, the documents he had uploaded were gone.

ADCOCK: “Obviously I’m very upset. And I really don’t know where to go at this point and time.”

It’s not that Adcock lacks tech savvy. He used to work for Microsoft. He says the system has been very confusing.

Adcock’s experience isn’t isolated. Penny Lara is with Seattle-King county Public Health. She’s been helping residents sign up for health care. She says various situations, like immigration status or divorce, make the application process complicated. Lara says part of the stress also comes from dealing with uncertainty.

LARA: “People want to know how much they’re going to pay, and they want to know today so they can start budgeting for next year, and I understand their anxiety, I get it.”

To date nearly than 50,000 Washington residents have enrolled for health plans. The website isn’t the only way for people to sign up. They can also contact the exchange’s call center. And that’s where our story continues.

I’m Ruby de Luna, in Seattle.

And I'm Jessica Robinson at an industrial park in Spokane Valley, where newly hired call center representatives are learning how to greet callers.

Trainer: “When you answer the phone, what is the first thing you always want to do?”

The state of Washington is trying to add more call center workers – and fast. Managers expect to double the number of humans at the end of your call by mid-December. Right now, they’re looking for places to put more cubicles.

Don Albright: “Just have to cram 'em in. We gotta get them in.”

Don Albright manages the state call center. He says everything is more than they expected. They staffed up for maybe 2,000 calls a day. Instead, it's been three times that. They figured calls would last on average 17 minutes. Instead, it’s more like 30-40 minutes. Albright says, it turns out, people need a lot of step-by-step advice.

Don Albright: “Most of the questions are all about what they qualify for, how much are their tax credits, applying on the phone or needing help at home applying.”

The launch of Washington's health care exchange has been relatively smooth. But the state system still has to communicate with the federal data hub.

Don Albright: “One of the things we have to get from the federal hub is eligibility things. So if the hub is not up, we can't really complete our applications here.”
Jessica: “And has that happened?”
Don Albright: “Yes.”

In fact, about an hour after we talked, the federal hub went down again, bringing progress on applications to a halt.

Perhaps because of the well-publicized online problems, some people are opting for a more old fashioned method of applying. Customer service representative Katie Reis sits next to a desk stacked with paper applications. She says it's hard to keep up with the number of forms coming in by snail mail and fax.

Katie Reis: “On Saturdays I come in and I train people to do paper applications and we trained seven last weekend, and we're planning on bringing in 50 more. Just to do paper applications.”

Many of the applications are from pregnant women who are looking to get coverage for their doctor visits next year. Reis says, hiccups aside, she's sold on the new healthcare law.

Katie Reis: “And I think people will find out that yes, it's a great program. It's going to help a lot of people that couldn't get coverage before and now they can.”

… IF they can get signed up. Officials at the Washington Health Benefit Exchange are now looking for another building nearby to house a second center to take calls.

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