Health exchange increasing call center staffPublished 9:39am Wednesday, December 11, 2013
MNsure helpline waits reach an hour
By Christopher Snowbeck
ST. PAUL — The MNsure call center is struggling to handle an influx of questions from people trying to finalize health insurance for next year.
Callers to the help line for Minnesota’s new health insurance exchange were being told Tuesday afternoon they had to wait 60 minutes for assistance.
“We are actively working to address and reduce (call center) wait times by adding staff and joining with (the Department of Human Services) to increase the number of people we have taking consumer calls,” MNsure spokeswoman Jenni Bowring-McDonough said in a written response to questions.
Minnesota launched the MNsure website Oct. 1 to implement the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires almost all Americans to have health insurance starting next year.
People don’t have to buy coverage through MNsure. They can obtain it directly from insurance companies or in the market “off” the exchange with the help of an insurance agent.
But only people who purchase a policy through a government-run exchange such as MNsure can tap federal tax credits that are made available by the health care overhaul.
Sixty-minute wait times are unusual, said Rebecca Lozano, the outreach program manager with Portico Healthnet, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that is funded as part of MNsure’s “navigator” program to help consumers.
“It’s usually less than 45 minutes or so,” Lozano wrote in an email.
“Wait times today were an hour, and I believe it was due to the intermittent online system availability that we experienced today.”
Lozano said she didn’t know why the website was having issues.
There had been hope that it would perform better this week after last week’s poor performance.
At that time, the site was slow for many users because state and county officials were re-running thousands of applications through MNsure to double-check eligibility determinations for earlier applicants.
To address wait times, MNsure recently added 27 newly trained staff to answer calls, Bowring-McDonough said. Fifteen more will be added next week.
Help from call centers at the Department of Human Services is scheduled to begin this week, she said.
“Wait times vary by time of day, and day of the week,” Bowring-McDonough said. She said Saturdays are the website’s least busy day
The help can’t come soon enough for consumers, as well as the insurance agents who help them.
Dan Schneeman, an agent with Seven Hills Benefit Partners in St. Paul, said he waited on hold for 30 minutes and 50 minutes during two calls to the MNsure call center last week.
The kicker is that after waiting so long, the answers from call center staff don’t always work, said Christopher Schneeman, who also is an insurance agent.
“Then you’re back in the queue,” he said.
Consumers have until Dec. 23 to buy coverage through MNsure for policies that take effect Jan. 1.
To satisfy the mandate for individuals to have coverage next year, consumers can purchase policies as late as March.
The federal health law subjects the vast majority of Americans to a tax penalty if they lack coverage for three months or more in 2014.
There are limited exceptions to the coverage mandate for American Indians, people who are incarcerated, those with incomes so low they don’t file taxes and members of a religion opposed to accepting health insurance benefits.
—Distributed by MCT Information Services