MNsure officials came up with their own estimates, based on information they gathered from health insurers and others. Those estimates were considerably off target.
Instead of handling 900 calls per day, as initially projected, the call center was taking an average of 2,174 calls per day by December, with operators bogged down with consumers stymied over technical issues while signing up for coverage.
In fact, callers were on hold so long that half hung up before reaching a live operator. By comparison, the industry standard is 3 percent.
Ben Merrill estimates he has spent more than three hours on hold over the past few weeks. He gave up twice after waiting for 20 minutes. Another time while on hold, he ran an errand while staying connected. He got through after nearly an hour, only to be told the call center could not help him.
“It’s a tremendous waste of people’s time,” said Merrill, 41, of St. Paul, who eventually got insurance through the system.
MNsure officials defended their original projections, saying the exchange is operating in uncharted territory.
“This hadn’t been tried before,” said MNsure interim CEO Scott Leitz, who replaced MNsure’s former chief executive in mid-December. “The state exchanges have a level of complexity that is far different from checking on the status of a shipment from Nordstrom.”
Call center veterans agreed that MNsure faced some unique challenges, but they said the agency made a critical mistake by not hiring professionals to design the operation. Last June, after watching MNsure leaders outline plans for the call center, a former representative of Avaya, a $5 billion telecommunications company, wrote an e-mail to several board members warning of problems ahead.
MNsure “is not set up to handle the pending onslaught of traffic the exchange is going to generate,” wrote Johan Aasheim, then of Avaya.
Other experienced call center firms said they tried to get the state to consider hiring an outside vendor to take at least some of the calls.
“They made it clear they had all of the infrastructure they needed,” said Hainey at Customer Elation. “The government went in with an arrogant attitude of, ‘We know how to do this better than business.’ And clearly they don’t. … This is one of the worst customer service experiences I’ve seen executed in my career.”
Industry experts said MNsure could have fixed the call center’s problems in October or November. With more than 400 call center companies in Minnesota, there was plenty of excess capacity.
“It’s one thing to have a problem — it’s another to not fix it,” said Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting in New Jersey, a research firm focused on the call center industry. “And this is very fixable. You have some great [options] in Minnesota.”
MNsure’s chairman agrees that mistakes were made with the call center. “Things will go wrong,” Beutner said. “That is the nature of starting something from scratch.”
In November, the agency tried to work out a deal with an outside vendor, but the deal collapsed when the parties couldn’t agree on the price, said Erik Larson, MNsure’s chief operating officer. “Their cost numbers were quite out of line,” he said.
This time, MNsure is negotiating with three companies, including Optum.
A new vendor will enable MNsure to offer a service that is standard at other call centers dealing with high volume — callers will be allowed to schedule a return phone call. MNsure has been equipped to do that since Oct. 1, but the agency hasn’t had enough workers to make those calls, Larson said.