At 7:30 a.m., the switchboard turned on and the phones began to ring.
Callers from all over Washington wanted to know how to qualify for health insurance coverage. They dialed the right place.
Ready to answer their questions, poised at new computers Tuesday in a new facility in Spokane Valley, was a roomful of workers who had spent more than a month training for this moment. Washington’s Health Benefit Exchange launched a multipronged initiative to help the uninsured obtain coverage. The effort is prescribed by the federal Affordable Care Act of 2010.
With a payroll of $2 million, the Spokane Valley call center attracted “hundreds” of applicants for its 90 jobs, said Anna Van Buren, CEO of Faneuil Inc. Except for 20 temporary workers who were hired to help with the startup rush between now and December, all of the new call center jobs are full time and came with a full benefits package including health insurance, said Don Albright, call center manager.
Faneuil, based in Virginia, won a contract to operate the facility. Van Buren said she was pleased with the skills of those the center hired. “They’ve taken a personal interest in what they do,” she said. “They have passion for the people they get to serve.”
The call center’s role is to answer questions from Washington residents interested in signing up for health insurance. In Washington, more than 800,000 people have no coverage today. About 300,000 will become eligible for Medicaid, a government-funded program that has been expanded to cover everyone living at up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The other 500,000 will be eligible to purchase coverage, in most cases with federal subsidies to reduce the cost.
All applications for federally assisted coverage – whether it’s Medicaid or private insurance – must go through a new Washington state website, www.wahealthplanfinder.org.
Although sales do not begin until Oct. 1, information about how to qualify is available now. In addition to the website, the state has been preparing several sources of information:
• The call center, whose toll-free number is 1-855-WAFINDER or 1-855-923-4633.
• Traditional health insurance brokers, who are being trained by the state to assist people with the new government-run, online insurance buying marketplace. When the state offered training, 1,400 brokers signed up. Classes have been packed and more are being added, said Richard Onizuka, CEO of the state Health Benefit Exchange. Brokers, who tend to work mostly with small-business clients, can get special login accounts for the online insurance marketplace and can receive commissions from the health insurance plans that their clients purchase, Onizuka said.
• In-person assistance providers. Also known as “navigators” and required by the Affordable Care Act, these are trained, front-line social workers located throughout the state. In most cases they’re paid for the work, by organizations that have won contracts with the state. Within the 14 counties of Eastern Washington, training is underway for 150 of these assistance providers. The Health Plan Finder website includes information about how to get in touch with a trained provider, and the new toll-free call center can provide referrals.
• A separate corps of volunteers is being trained to assist people eligible for expanded Medicaid. The state Health Care Authority, which runs Medicaid, is offering 24 training seminars around the state. The response, officials said, has been intense. Several classes are full and more are being added. At a packed daylong seminar in Spokane last week, the volunteer trainees came from a range of agencies such as churches, tribes, health districts and medical clinics.
As part of their training, all of these official assistance providers are required by state and federal rules to pass criminal background checks and to learn techniques for protecting the privacy of those they assist. Many, as social workers or employees at medical clinics, already are experienced at working with confidential information and keeping it secure, officials said.
At the state’s new Spokane Valley call center, supervisors continuously walk the room, monitoring call-takers’ work. Faneuil’s policy requires clutter-free desks to prevent unauthorized note-taking, and the computer system on which employees work is designed so that confidential information is saved to a secure electronic database, rather than being printed on pieces of paper.
Kristen West Fisher, chair of the board for Better Health Together, was on hand to watch the call center’s opening day. It’s her organization’s job to provide the trained in-person navigators for Eastern Washington. In an interview, she told of a few Washington residents who in recent months have illustrated the heartache that comes with no health insurance:
• A construction worker who suffers from epilepsy lost his job, lost his house, had no insurance coverage, could not afford his anti-epilepsy medications, began cutting his pills in half to save money, suffered a severe seizure, was hospitalized, got a big hospital bill he couldn’t pay, lost his apartment and now has become homeless.
• A veteran diagnosed with stage 3 cancer had difficulty receiving his benefit checks because he was homeless, and by the time social workers came to his aid all they could do was ensure that when he died, he had a roof over his head.
• A woman who had received an organ transplant lost her job and with it, her health insurance. She no longer could afford her anti-rejection drugs, so her body began to reject her new organ. When social workers learned of her plight they got her onto emergency medical assistance, a program that will be superseded by the new, more comprehensive expansion of Medicaid. For thousands of uninsured people like this woman, Fisher said, “if you’re sick and scared, it’s hard to know how to get help, and it’s hard to get work.”
Fisher said she’s well aware of the continuing controversy in Congress over the Affordable Care Act. And yet, as she looked across the room of busy call center operators on Tuesday morning, she said: “I can’t help but think this is the right path.”
Erin Fluegal, a customer service representative at the call center, said most of the first day’s calls had to do with eligibility: How do I qualify for Medicaid? How do I qualify for subsidized insurance? The new website includes a calculator to provide answers, based on an applicant’s family size and income. By Oct. 1, it will offer not only eligibility information, but a range of policies that consumers can compare and purchase. When applicants qualify for Medicaid, with all costs paid by the government, they’ll be able to sign up on the site.
Fluegal, whose previous job was as a quality analyst for a bank call center, said she felt good about the mission of the new health insurance call center: “It really is going to help a lot of people.”