Issues Remain in Registration for Washington Health Benefit Exchange

By Steve Jackson

Washington state residents are finding that sign-up for the state's new health insurance exchange is running the gamut, from an easy experience to a frustrating one. The Washington Health Benefit Exchange has been up and running since the first of October. The numbers indicate the state is having good luck in relation to most other states for how efficient the sign up process has been. 

To date, nearly 100,000 people have signed up, and another 147,000 have selected a health plan but have yet to officially sign up. Those numbers put  Washington just behind New York and California for the number of successful sign ups.

For some people we talked to, the process has been an easy one. Jeff Blauestone signed up without any issues.

Blauestone: “And I’m a software developer and I’m truly the most critical of non user friendly web appliances, and this was not that.”

Cindy Fine was another who said getting her 20 year old daughter insurance coverage was problem free. FIne says "it was super smooth and easy, but you know she had a simple process to enroll because she doesn’t have any income and it was a baseline process.”

But for others, sign up has been more complicated. Julie Lehman says she started the procedure, using an in-person “Navigator”, but even with her help, got stymied.

Lehman: “Then this code appeared, an error code and she had no idea what it meant. Called this exchange navigator helpline, they couldn’t help, and were told we'll get a technician, and so that’s when we started with the OK we'll call back, and was never able to get through. “

Lehman called the exchange phone help line for 12 days, at different times, before she was able to get anyone on the phone. That experience was similar to the one Betty Stiritz went through, after she was unable to use the website to get an in person navigator. So she began to call the phone help line.

Stiritz: “The first time I called it said my wait would be 30 or more minutes, and so I tried again. And every other time of the ten or so times I called I only received a message that tells me to call back at another time, I can't leave message, I am not put on hold, the phone call is ended.”

Washington Health Benefit Exchange spokesperson Michael Marchand admits they underestimated how many people would need to call the phone exchange for more assistance, and says originally they estimated the most calls would be 3,000 a day.

Marchand: “What we;re seeing in volume is literally eight times that. On Monday we had, for instance, 17,000 phone calls into the call center.” 

Marchand says the call center started with 80 phone representatives but they hired 65 more, and now plan to bring in a total of 286. He also says they are looking at the possibility of expanding the number of in-person navigators.

Marchand says some similar patterns of errors are making themselves apparent. In some cases people whose names are already registered in a state database as having received assistance in the past like Medicaid, are receiving error codes on the state website if they have changed their status at all, like getting married. But he says the system is being fine tuned, and the phone assisters are getting updated lists of specific errors to look for.

Another problem we heard about was long delays in the authorization of documents that have been uploaded to the state’s website, like Birth Certificates or Social Security cards. The call center’s chief, Don Albright, says those documents should be reviewed quickly.

Albright: “They should be going in and reviewing that and looking at that in 24-48 hours.”

But one of the phone assisters told us on the phone in reality that review process is taking as long as ten days. Michael Marchand says that issue may be more related to slowdowns at the federal website. He says 40 people at the local call center are now working on verification of those documents.

On a personal note, in my attempt to sign up my wife for health insurance through the Exchange, I received a message on the website that said we would need to provide evidence from the state that she had been “released from incarceration.” That was a surprise to me, as my spouse had never been incarcerated. The phone assister I talked with said that problem was popping up fairly often, including for woman who was upset that she had received the same message in connection with her four year old son.

Michael Marchand admits new problems are showing up, but he attributes part of that to the fact that Washington state is so far ahead of other states in the number of people that are enrolling that they are encountering issues that other states haven’t seen yet.

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