A major boost in manpower is still weeks away at MNsure’s overwhelmed call center, which continues to keep customers on hold for 30 minutes or more while the state health exchange tries to regroup from a variety of problems that have slowed enrollment.
Call center industry veterans, and one MNsure board member, said the agency should have solved staffing problems at the call center three months ago, when it became obvious the agency had underestimated the number of operators needed to handle the deluge of calls.
Some callers have waited as long as two hours to speak with a MNsure representative since the exchange launched on Oct. 1. The industry standard for call centers is 30 seconds.
“Anybody could get it wrong up front, but what was everybody [at MNsure] doing while all of these people were on hold?” said Fred Weiner, president of The Connection, a Burnsville company. “What were they doing in October, November and December?”
Weiner said his company is one of three vying for an outsourcing contract with MNsure that agency officials expect to finalize within the next week. The contract is expected to allow MNsure to add up to 100 external customer service representatives to its call center, which currently has 65 operators.
The additional workers are expected to be in place just as the agency prepares for its next major test: a crush of consumers rushing to meet the March 31 deadline to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, which requires most Americans to have coverage or pay a tax penalty.
MNsure officials said they are confident their call center strategy will work because other technical problems are decreasing, and more applicants are enrolling successfully. “We are reacting right,” said Brian Beutner, MNsure’s board chairman. “Would we have liked to have done it sooner and more timely? Maybe.”
The state originally expected about 135,000 consumers to use MNsure to enroll in private and government-subsidized health plans by the end of open enrollment in March. But only 27,775 people have bought coverage, according to the latest data through Jan. 22.
As of Thursday, MNsure was planning to cap its hiring at 50 additional external operators. But the agency decided to double its goal after the Star Tribune asked why it wasn’t following the advice of the health care IT company Optum, which analyzed MNsure’s operations.
Optum, which is credited with fixing widespread problems with the federal health exchange, told MNsure in January that it should hire 100 operators to boost customer service and eliminate long wait times.
In a written statement on Sunday, MNsure told the Star Tribune that it decided to boost staffing beyond 50 operators “after looking more strategically” at the call center’s needs.
With the additional workers, MNsure officials said average hold times should drop to two minutes, compared to an average of 36 minutes in January. On busy days, MNsure officials acknowledge, callers could be on hold for 10 minutes.
“In the call center industry, 10 minutes is considered a huge failure,” said Pete Hainey, president of Customer Elation, one of the largest call center operators in Minnesota. “No business would accept a 10-minute hold as their norm.”
Even though MNsure more than doubled its call staff in December, it hasn’t been enough. Last week, callers waited up to 40 minutes to speak to an operator.
“Is it taking way too long to fix? Yes,” said Tom Forsythe, a MNsure board member. “I have not been as aggressive as I should have been. … The response was inadequate.”
When state officials started laying the groundwork for MNsure in 2011, they planned to hire a consultant to assess its call center needs. But a consultant was never hired.