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Online Hiccups Make Health Care Sign-Ups Go Old School

Jessica Robinson
Northwest News Network
New hires train to take calls at Washington's health exchange call center in Spokane Valley.

It's hard to find anyone who orders anything by phone or through the mail any more – unless, they're signing up for health insurance under the new Affordable Care Act.

With all the online snags in the first month, people are turning to some decidedly old school methods. And some managers in the Northwest say snail mail and the phone are the best workarounds for the time being.

At an industrial park in Spokane Valley, newly hired call center representatives are learning how to greet callers.

The state of Washington is trying to add more workers to its health care exchange call center – and fast. Managers plan 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.

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

“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.”

Now, the launch of Washington's health care exchange has been relatively smooth, at least compared to the beleaguered federal website. Thousands of people in Washington have successfully signed up online. But the state system still has to communicate with the federal data hub.

“One of the things we have to get from the federal hub is eligibility things," says Albright. "So if the hub is not up, we can't really complete our applications here."

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

Nationally, customer service lines are turning out to be more important to the Affordable Care Act than anticipated. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says an additional 2,000 customer service reps will be hired for the federal hotline.

For states that rely entirely on the federal website, it feels a bit like a flashback.

“In lieu of that working, we do have to go to that sort of pre-Internet era,” says Alberto Gonzalez, operations project manager for Your Health Idaho. “You have to do this over the phone or send in a paper application, which is reliable but certainly not the most current way of conducting business.”

Gonzalez says Idaho will eventually have it’s own state-run exchange.

His agency has had to change its message since Oct. 1 from “enroll online” to “browse the plans online and then enroll over the phone.”

In Oregon during the first month, all the applications successfully submitted -- about 7,000 of them – were by paper.

Even in Washington, some people are avoiding the website and opting for the old fashioned method of applying.

That’s what’s happening at the call center near Spokane. Across the room, 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.

“On Saturdays I come in and I train people to do paper applications," she says. "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 health care law. “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.”

That is 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.