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HealthCare Checkup

The Seattle Times health-care team tracks the local impact of the Affordable Care Act.

March 3, 2014 at 5:34 PM

Need insurance help? Prepare to wait.

The number of Washington residents insured through the state’s health insurance exchange keeps rising, but those struggling with their applications still face lengthy waits for help.

The state’s toll-free help line has been swamped since the launch of Washington Healthplanfinder this fall. The center has increased its staff from about 135 customer representatives in October to 525 now.

More than 106,000 residents have bought insurance through Healthplanfinder, the state’s insurance marketplace, according to the latest weekly report released Monday. An additional 322,000 people have used the site to sign up for Medicaid for the first time, including those who are newly eligible thanks to the expansion of the program under the Affordable Care Act and those who previously qualified but did not enroll.

But many people have stumbled while filling out their online applications for insurance or Medicaid. Folks dialing the call center will wait about a minute for their call to be answered, then they’re put into one of four queues, depending on whether their problem is with website error codes, enrollment issues, payment problems or Medicaid.

Callers spend an average of 49 minutes on hold once in one of the queues, according to data ending Feb. 27. This is slightly longer than the average wait during the week before.

While the waits are long, more people are at least getting through to the queues. It used to be that half the calls were dropped after callers heard a please-call-back-later message. Now approximately 90 percent of calls are being answered, said Beth Walter, Healthplanfinder’s director of operations, speaking recently before the board that oversees the health insurance exchange.

“We still have high wait times in those queues, but those calls are typically resolved,” Walter said. “Things are getting a lot better at the call center.”

Dissatisfied customers remain.

Liz Snyder testified before the board at its meeting last week in SeaTac. In January, the Bellevue resident began her online application for insurance but ran into trouble. She called the help line numerous times, sometimes waiting more than an hour for help, or other times getting disconnected after a long wait on hold. She eventually enlisted help from one of the exchange’s navigators, who offer free, in-person help.

Snyder is now enrolled in a plan, but there still seems to be payment problems with her account.

“The customer service system is ineffective and inefficient,” Snyder told the Washington Health Benefit Exchange board. “Do you have the will to do what is necessary to improve this service?”

In addition to navigators, brokers can also provide free help to people seeking insurance.

The situation could get worse. The state expects a surge in applications as the March 31 enrollment deadline approaches. By the end of the month, the open enrollment period will close for individuals buying insurance. Most Americans are legally required by that date to have health insurance or participate in a government program such as Medicaid or Medicare.

Exchange staff said they’re working to improve the call center, give additional information and training to navigators, and make fixes and upgrades to the online enrollment site. In a perfect world, there would be no need for help.

“My goal would be that the call center get no calls,” said Michael Marchand, director of communications for Healthplanfinder.

Comments | Topics: Affordable Care Act, Michael Marchand, Washington Health Benefit Exchange


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