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Wash. Health Exchange Beefs Up Call Center For March Rush, Warns Of Long Hold Times

Washington’s health insurance exchange has ramped up its customer-service call center in anticipation of a big surge in enrollments this month. But callers should still hunker down for a long wait.

The Spokane-based call center got an average of more than 40,000 calls a day in January, but managed to answer just 15 percent of them. Of the rest, the vast majority got a message telling them to give up and call back later, while others hung up due to wait times that averaged 40 minutes or more.

Spokesman Michael Marchand says there were several reasons for the dead ends and long waits, starting with sheer numbers.

“The volumes we saw far exceeded anything we envisioned,” Marchand said. “We were seeing ten times the volume that was forecasted for the call center, even on high-volume days.”

The Fixes Are In

The problem of volume was due, in part, to the glitchy website, which sent thousands to the call center with questions. Other problems included hardware limitations and too few staffers.

Marchand said those two problems have been addressed. The call center added 230 network circuits to handle calls, and ramped up staffing from 80 customer service reps to more than 500.

They’ve also added a “triage” step where a person quickly directs callers to the right queue. Those moves have reduced the abandoned calls from about 50 percent to 8 percent.

Long Wait Times Persist

And yet, Marchand says he expects wait times in March to remain essentially the same: about 40 minutes on average.

“The issues regarding people’s applications have gotten more complex. And so what’s happening is many of our customer service representatives are on the phone for up to an hour, resolving their particular issues," said Marchand.

For some customers, the wait times could be all that matters. Garth Donald is in his late 20s, one of the so-called young invincibles seen as key to the success of Obamacare. He says for him, the call center has been a dead end.

“Cell phone plans have a certain amount of minutes. And so if I’m told I have to wait an hour, that’s it. I'm not interested in using that form of communication,” said Donald. “It’s very nice that they provide a 1-800 number, but I haven’t cared about 1-800 numbers in over a decade, easily. It just doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Choosing The Fine

Donald says he wondered why he couldn’t reach people more easily by email. At the least, he said, the call center ought to give customers the option of a call-back when their turn is up instead of making people stay on the line.

After several frustrating encounters compounded the problems he was already having buying insurance, he said he’s ready to give up on coverage and just accept the consequences.

That’s the choice confronting many people this month. Those without coverage by March 31 face a fine. And unless they meet special criteria, they won’t be able to enroll on the exchange until October.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.
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