California's health insurance exchange is racing to fix persistent service problems before it faces another surge of Obamacare applicants eager to beat a March enrollment deadline.
The Covered California exchange said 250 new call-center workers began training Monday, and as many as 150 more employees will come on board in the coming weeks to ease phone wait times that stretch nearly an hour. Those additions would bring the total number of call-center staff to 900 people from about 500 now.
The state is drawing on a $155-million federal grant it received last month to improve service ahead of the March 31 sign-up deadline under the Affordable Care Act. The Obama administration is counting on California to deliver another big wave of enrollment to compensate for a shaky rollout nationwide.
But Covered California struggled to handle a huge upswing in applications in December, when more than 400,000 people signed up. Overall, more than 625,000 people have enrolled in private health plans in the state through mid-January.
More than half of callers in December couldn't get through to the exchange and abandoned their call. The state's goal was that fewer than 3% of calls would be abandoned. The average wait time topped one hour at the end of December and hit 52 minutes late last month at Covered California. Likewise, insurance companies have been swamped and difficult to reach for many customers.
"We know too many Californians have been frustrated," said Peter Lee, Covered California's executive director. "We have stepped up to say, 'We will get it right.'"
The workers who started Monday at the Fresno call center still have to complete three weeks of training, so they won't start helping consumers until early March. The remainder of the workers hired in the next few weeks probably won't start until mid-March.
Some consumer advocates question whether these reinforcements will be ready in time.
"I'm always optimistic and hopeful, but it's a big stretch in a short amount of time," said Betsy Imholz, special projects director for Consumers Union.
Lorie Parch, 48, a self-employed writer who lives in West L.A., said she hasn't been able to get through to the exchange over the phone or online.
She tried contacting Covered California this month after her health plan had no record of her enrollment through the state marketplace. Parch said the exchange's phone lines were jammed every time she called.
Then she decided to use the website's online chat function instead, but it didn't work either. Now Parch said she's working with a certified enrollment counselor to resolve her problem.
"It's like a part-time job, trying to get insurance," she said.
Lee acknowledged Monday that the state is "way off" its goal of answering 80% of phone calls within 30 seconds.
Initially, he said, the exchange would like to see wait times cut in half while more workers are added. In addition to bolstering the call center, the state has added 25 people to handle the online-chat system.
Another frequent complaint has been the lack of Spanish-speaking service-center workers. Before the new hires Monday, about 10% of call-center workers spoke Spanish, Lee said. Twenty-eight of the 250 who started Monday speak Spanish.
Some state lawmakers have criticized the exchange for its low enrollment among Latinos, who represent more than half of the state's uninsured population.
Imholz said that she'd like to see more Spanish-speakers hired in the next round, and that the exchange needs to focus more on recruiting bilingual workers in general. The state has more than 4,100 enrollment counselors in the field statewide, and more than 60% of them speak Spanish, according to the exchange.
"We need to do a whole lot more to make the application process really accessible for those who don't speak English as their primary language," Imholz said.
In another embarrassment last week, the exchange pulled its online directory of health plan physicians because it had too many errors. Some consumers have complained about getting the wrong information about which doctors are included under their new policies.
The federal law requires most Americans to buy health insurance this year or face a penalty. In 2014, the penalty is $95 per adult or 1% of household income, whichever is greater. The penalties increase in future years.