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Originally published Sunday, November 24, 2013 at 6:30 PM

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Thousands of calls to state health exchange go unanswered

Less than a third of the calls in October were “handled.” The rest of the callers were told by a recorded voice to call back later, or they hung up rather than waiting to talk to a representative.


Special to The Seattle Times

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For the past two weeks, a frustrated Albert Franz has called the toll-free hotline for Washington Healthplanfinder’s customer-support center every other day to get help. It’s been an exercise in futility.

“I’ve tried seven or eight different days,” said Franz, an information-technology consultant in Redmond. “I just get the same recorded message — that due to high call volume, we can’t help you.”

He has yet to get through to a customer-service representative.

Officials of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which operates Healthplanfinder, have acknowledged for several weeks that the customer-support center has been overwhelmed by the volume of calls from Washington residents seeking help on their applications for insurance policies offered by the exchange.

Though the exchange is attempting to improve its handling of the call volume, the level of frustration among customers seeking help remains unabated.

Exchange CEO Richard Onizuka told the exchange board Wednesday that his agency has been working to double the number of customer-service representatives, but that “we continue to have struggles with the call center.”

Operations director Beth Walter told the board that in October the call center received about 167,000 calls during its operating hours, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

That works out to more than 7,200 calls each weekday, or about 600 calls an hour — far more than had been expected.

More than 76,000 of the calls in October were “throttled,” meaning callers heard a recorded message telling them that because of high-call volume they should call back later. More than 44,000 were “abandoned,” meaning the caller had the option of going into a queue and waiting to speak to a representative but chose to hang up instead.

The remaining 47,000 calls — less than one-third of the total — were “handled,” meaning the caller was put into a queue and got through to a customer-service representative or was able to leave a phone number so a representative could call back.

An additional 63,000 calls came in to the center after hours and on weekends, Walter said.

Many of the calls come from customers who run into problems on the Healthplanfinder website. Walter said about 80 percent of the calls received in October involved problems such as “error codes” on the site.

The figures for November are not yet available. But Onizuka said the call volume has been increasing. Last Monday, the call volume hit 17,000.

The exchange is expecting a surge of calls in December as people rush to sign up for coverage before the Dec. 23 deadline to submit their first payment for coverage that begins Jan. 1.

To handle the increase, the exchange is enlarging its call-center staff to 286 by mid-December from 135 in October. After a recent round of hiring and training, there currently are about 200 representatives, including 159 who are on the phones and 38 who are processing paper applications.

Even so, a high number of callers are still getting no further than a recorded message telling them about the high volume of calls and suggesting they call back later.

The exchange began throttling calls in mid-October “to allow more flow for those already in the queue and to avoid significant wait times,” spokeswoman Bethany Frey wrote in an email. Because the call volume has increased in November, the number of throttled calls has also increased, she wrote.

The call center throttled about 42,000 calls just in the first week of November, compared with the 76,000 in all of October.

“We really don’t want to be doing this right now,” Walter told the board. “But it’s what we need to do in order to keep the calls that are able to come in.”

Franz, the IT consultant, has been among the thousands whose calls have gone unanswered. He’s hoping for answers to questions about how to report his fluctuating income on Healthplanfinder so that he can find out if his family qualifies for a premium subsidy in an exchange health plan.

Franz said he also sent an email to the customer-support center about two weeks ago to get help. He has yet to receive a reply or even an acknowledgment.

“I’m not having much luck getting any response from them at all,” he said.

Other callers have encountered similar problems.

Peter Bohr, a freelance journalist on Orcas Island, said he had tried calling the customer-support center multiple times over 10 days to find out why he kept getting an error code after entering his household income on the Healthplanfinder website.

Bohr said he kept running into “error code 3074.”

The website “does not tell you what the error code means,” he said. “It just says contact the customer-support line during the hours of operation.

“Well, just try to contact them,” he said and laughed. “Either you get a message saying they’re much too busy to answer the phone call, so call back later, or you get a busy signal, or several times I’ve just gotten cut off.”

Bohr said he got a bit further on one occasion when he was asked to either wait on the line for 26 minutes or leave his phone number and a customer-service representative would call him back.

“I left my number, and they did call me back,” he said. “But the person I was talking to essentially gave scripted responses. The person had really no idea what error code 3074 meant and just basically said she will report the problem to her team or whatever and that I should try back. ... ”

Bohr said he tried calling the customer-support center last Monday, as instructed. “Of course the same thing is happening all over again,” he said.

The call center’s policy of dealing with the volume by throttling calls has left some customers frustrated.

Franz said he would prefer to have the option to wait on the line, even if it’s a long wait.

“If they put me in queue and said it’s a two-hour wait, I could understand that — they’re short on staff,” he said. “But it just seems like they’ve shut the line down and put a recorded message up.”

For Bohr, the same error code appeared on Tuesday and he was ready to give up trying to submit an online application and go the paper route instead.

But Tuesday afternoon, he finally had a breakthrough.

Bohr wrote in an email that he had called the customer-support center once again, and this time was able to leave his phone number. About 30 minutes later, a representative called him back.

“I got through to somebody!” he exulted.

“A staffer called up my application and saw the error code and said they’d never seen that one before,” he wrote. “She gave me a ‘ticket’ number and said that in five days she’d call back with a resolution.”

So Bohr is waiting for that call back.

“We shall see,” he said.

Amy Snow Landa is a freelance writer in Seattle. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-policy research and communication organization that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.



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