March 2, 2014 in City

Washington health care call center experiences long delays

Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
 

SEATTLE – When Washington state’s health insurance exchange first opened in October, callers dialing a consumer help line experienced some of the shortest hold times in the nation.

Now, even though the exchange has hired more operators to answer more calls, people are waiting three times longer to get through to someone who can help them.

According to data from Washington Healthplanfinder, the average wait time at the Spokane-based call center has grown from about 14 minutes in December to about 90 minutes in February.

Pam Degnan Grant, of Whidbey Island, said she was on hold so long last week with the Spokane-based call center that she was able to take a shower and come back to her phone before anyone picked up. The unemployed 52-year-old eventually got the help she needed, after 94 minutes on hold.

The call center was able to answer 106,000 calls in the month of January, compared to 66,174 calls in December, according to exchange spokeswoman Bethany Frey. Originally, they were able to handle about 1,200 calls a day when the call center opened in October; now they can handle 7,500 to 8,000 a day.

Answering more calls takes more time, but that’s not the only reason wait times appear to have lengthened. The exchange has also become clearer about hold times and has a better handle on how to measure them, Frey said.

“While our internal wait times are still longer than we would like, they are not worse than before,” she said.

Instead of just reporting how long it takes for a real person to pick up a call, before people are put back on hold to wait for some actual help. Now they’re reporting the whole time a person waits for help, Frey said.

“We are now handling 90 percent of the calls that come through each day and we are seeing far less ‘repeat calls’ from people who can’t get through,” Frey said.

With a background in customer service, Grant said she would be happy to help the exchange out.

“Your only option is to sit on hold,” she said. “That can’t be your only option.”

Grant did say she was happy with her new insurance, which has a lower premium and lower out-of-pocket maximums than her previous coverage.

Corey Krupp, an insurance broker from Coeur d’Alene who has customers in Washington and Idaho, has been frustrated with both the technical problems at the online exchange and the lack of help at the call center.

“No matter what time of day you call, you never get through. And when you do get through, you stay on hold and wait and wait and wait,” Krupp said, adding that several times, after waiting more than an hour, he was disconnected.

He had more positive things to say about the federal exchange that Idaho uses, which has had more serious technical problems, Krupp notes, but when you call for help, someone picks up the phone and helps you.

Average wait times for call centers on the federal marketplace that is running in 36 states have ranged from under a minute in November to eight and a half minutes in December.

Getting help from an insurance broker – and letting them wait on the phone instead of you – is an option that won’t cost the consumer a penny. But Krupp said he’s not so sure the extra business is worth so much extra work.

“We get $10 a policy,” he said concerning the monthly commission for selling insurance through the exchange. “It’s definitely not worth it.”

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