Affordable Care Act spurs hiring blitz

President Barack Obama, standing next to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

The nation’s complicated healthcare overhaul is proving to be a surprising source of work: People are needed to explain the law’s provisions to consumers.

In addition to the expected demand for more nurses and doctors to treat millions of newly insured patients, the federal Affordable Care Act is feeding a cottage industry in call centers.

The law, which represents the biggest expansion of health insurance in nearly half a century, has spawned a hiring blitz by the state, major health insurers and many community groups that have to decode a lot of insurance lingo in a short amount of time to an incredibly diverse population.

Before it rolls out its health insurance marketplace, called Covered California, the state is hiring hundreds of people at three call centers set to open this fall when enrollment begins Oct. 1.

The state also needs an additional 20,000 enrollers across the state to inform consumers about their new health insurance options and the new penalties under the federal law if they don’t get coverage starting in January. Those enrollers, who will earn $58 for each sign-up, will primarily work for nonprofit and community groups assisting the state.


California has no shortage of candidates for the jobs.

The state’s unemployment rate is 9%, among the nation’s highest. In Fresno County, where one of the state call centers will operate, the jobless rate is 13.4%, not adjusted for seasonal factors.

Hundreds turned out in Fresno last month for a pre-screening exam that tests applicants’ ability to perform basic math, read and communicate the complexities of health insurance.

Only those who receive a passing score will be eligible for an interview, and applicants will be ranked based on their exam score. So far, more than 3,000 people have passed the test, officials said.

With a looming deadline, hiring managers are scrambling to fill positions requiring fluency in more than a dozen languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, ahead of a massive ad blitz expected to launch late this summer.

The advertisements will feature a toll-free number that state residents can call to begin the enrollment process.

“It’s a heavy lift for any organization to hire literally almost 1,000 people in a year’s time,” said Dana Howard, a spokesman for Covered California. “But we have the staff on board to navigate this, and so far it’s going quite smoothly.”

Long Beach resident Nancy Cunningham hopes to nab one of those part-time jobs as an enroller.

Cunningham, 76, retired in 2007 as a computer instructor and has been on a fixed income. She said she’s rejoining the labor force out of economic necessity, as many older workers have done.

“I’ve been retired for a few years and recently realized I needed to have a part-time job,” she said.

Call center workers will be dealing with many residents who know little about the complex healthcare law, let alone the world of deductibles, co-payments and other insurance issues.

A poll published in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 49% of the public said they do not have enough information on the healthcare law to understand how it will affect their family.

In addition, the state has the task of helping millions of Californians determine whether they qualify for an expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor, or federally subsidized private coverage. Families earning up to $94,000 annually may qualify for premium subsidies.

Overall, about 5 million Californians will be eligible for coverage in the state insurance exchange next year, and roughly half of those people may qualify for federal subsidies, according to official estimates.

Call center workers, called program technicians, face six weeks of instruction on the ins and outs of health insurance.

“Some people won’t make it through the training,” Howard said.

“We’re not going to put people on the phone who don’t meet the requirements. These are not going to be considered entry-level jobs,” he said. “It’s different from taking a fast-food order.”

Call centers are recruiting for a handful of different positions, including supervisors, with relatively good pay.

A class 2 program technician will earn up to $2,975 a month — or just under $36,000 per year. A supervising program technician can expect to earn up to $4,085 per month. Program technician positions are rank-and-file jobs represented by SEIU Local 1000.

Sacramento officials hailed the announcement of the Rancho Cordova call center, located 15 miles east of the capital. Six months before the Sacramento suburb was chosen for the call center site, cable provider Comcast announced it would be closing its California call centers, including a nearby office in Natomas that employed 300 workers.

The state’s second call center will be in Fresno, and a third will be run by Contra Costa County. Officials are still in the process of picking a suitable location for the Fresno and Contra Costa centers.

Insurers, too, will begin beefing up their operations to handle the glut of new customers.

Blue Shield of California, for instance, plans to fill about 120 positions through November in customer service and billing. About a third of the positions are at the offer or accepted-offer stage, a spokesman said.

Times staff writer Chad Terhune contributed to this report.