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Center answers calls for help

Support representatives answer questions about the health exchange at a call center in Spokane Valley on Sept. 3. (File)
Support representatives answer questions about the health exchange at a call center in Spokane Valley on Sept. 3. (File)

At 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 3, 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 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, 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.

All applications for federally assisted coverage – whether it’s Medicaid or private insurance – must go through a new Washington state website,

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. 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. The Health Plan Finder website includes information about how to get in touch with a trained provider.

• A separate corps of volunteers is being trained to assist people eligible for expanded Medicaid. The state Health Care Authority, which runs Medicaid, offered 24 training seminars around the state. At a packed daylong seminar in Spokane in late August, 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.

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.”

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