Amid Online Hiccups, Many Prefer Analog Sign-Up for Health Care

Nov 1, 2013

It's hard to find anyone who orders anything by phone or through the mail anymore—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-fashioned methods. And some managers in the Northwest say snail mail and the phone are the best workarounds for the time being.

Phones Abuzz at Spokane Call Center

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’ve got to get them in,” said Don Albright, who manages the state call center.

Albright 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. It turns out, people need a lot of step-by-step advice, Albright says.

“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,” Albright said.

How Glitches on Federal Site Affect Washingtonians

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. So if the hub is not up, we can't really complete our applications here,” said Albright.

And, he says, 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.

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

Turning to Paper Applications

At the call center near Spokane., 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. And we trained seven last weekend, and we're planning on bringing in 50 more just to do paper applications,” Reis said.

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,” she said. “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.