Exchanges also face call center problems

The Minnesota exchange call center -- in the quiet time before it began taking calls. (AP photo/Jim Mone) The Minnesota exchange call center -- in the quiet time before it began taking calls. (AP photo/Jim Mone)

Managers of the Maryland Health Connection public exchange have admitted that, in December, their call center was taking an average of about 35 minutes to answer calls.

Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services and its parent, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have reported that, whatever problems has had, the call centers have worked well.

HHS says the call centers for all HHS and state-based exchanges received 11 million calls from Oct. 1 through Dec. 28.

HHS isn’t giving details about how long its centers are taking to answer calls, but many state-based exchanges are posting call center reports similar to Maryland’s.

In Massachusetts, for example, the staff of the Massachusetts Health Connector says call center volume increased to 10,000 per day in late December, around the time of the application deadline for coverage that started Jan. 1, and that, on some days, its call center took more than 20 minutes to answer.

The staff of the Washington Healthplanfinder exchange told the Washington Health Benefit Exchange board that their call center received about 380,000 calls during operating hours, handled 66,000 of the calls, and played 273,000 “high volume messages.”

The initial wait times averaged 13 minutes.

About 70 percent of the calls were “duplicate calls” – from consumers who’d gotten tired of waiting the first time they tried.

In January, the “overall volume of calls is not decreasing,” the staff reported.

Kenneth Furr, legislative chair of the Nevada Association of Health Underwriters, talked about the effects of exchange call center problems on brokers in a letter posted on the site of the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange – the agency that oversees Nevada Health Link.

Furr told the board that the average wait time for brokers trying to call the exchange is about two hours.

Once brokers get through, they find that the exchange rarely has ability to solve the system issues that led to the call, Furr wrote.

“The brokers are in the frontline of this battle and have no ammunition,” Furr wrote. “We were trained how to use a system that does not work.”

Exchanges say they are trying to improve call center performance by hiring more reps, and by using new strategies to sort calls and handle simple calls quickly.

In Washington state, those strategies have cut the call abandonment rate to 2 percent, from 50 percent, the staff said.

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