Long waits frustrate calls to WA health exchange

SEATTLE (AP) - 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 have 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 earlier this week with the Spokane-based call center, 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 as 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 more clear about hold times and have 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, Idaho, who has customers in both 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 been 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."

Sherrie Larsen, of Tacoma, Wash., signed up for insurance online and didn't run into problems with the Washington health exchange until she tried to correct a problem on her first invoice, in February. The 49-year-old truck driver said the first time she called the exchange, she was told after waiting an hour and 27 minutes that the computer system was down and she would have to call back.

"That really set me off," Larsen said.

She called the state insurance commissioner's office to complain and said she didn't get a lot of help or understanding there.

The next day, Larsen called the exchange again, and was told the wait time would be about 29 minutes. After more than an hour sitting on the phone, she finally got the help she was seeking, but no apology or explanation.

"It's very, very, very frustrating," Larsen said.

She turned to Facebook to express her frustration on the exchange's official page_ in all capital letters. She had a lot of company there from other unhappy customers.

Larsen also isn't happy with her new insurance, which she says is more expensive and less comprehensive than the coverage she had before the Affordable Care Act.

"I am an extremely unhappy customer," she said. "Nobody should be subjected to that kind of service or behavior, especially from our government."

____

Contact Donna Blankinship at https://twitter.com/dgblankinship


(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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