Getting Vertical: Insurance

Making the Call on Obamacare

By Tracey E. Schelmetic, TMCnet Contributor  |  December 05, 2013

A contact center drama unfolded the first week of October. That’s because the nation’s insurance exchanges that were created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) opened for business the first day of last month. Their mandate is to begin enrolling uninsured Americans in their choice of health insurance plans that will go into effect on the first of January.

As millions of uninsured Americans have begun to go shopping by telephone and the Internet, there have been more than a few glitches reported thanks to heavy traffic, including unresponsive web pages and unending busy signals. The reports of problems varied by location, and for good reason. Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia are running their own state-based exchanges, while the other 36 states are choosing to leave administration of the exchanges to the federal government. Since even these federal exchanges are being handled by a variety of different contact centers (though all by the same company – the contact center arm of government contractor General Dynamics (News - Alert)), the success or failure of the websites and contact centers in the first days or weeks is likely to vary widely by region. 

New York’s system, for example, is run by the state, and officials had been confident of its robustness to handle high traffic.

"From everything that I've seen, New York is well ahead of the game, in terms of preparation and having the technology working," Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, told the Albany Times-Union

Getting the online market ready, including staffing and equipping a new customer service center in Albany, was accomplished with $370 million in federal grants, according to the Times-Union.

Still, when the day arrived, the state website saw 10 million visits on Oct. 1 alone, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal, and many of these visitors encountered error messages. Later in the day on Tuesday, the website featured a message encouraging insurance shoppers to try again later.

For Covered California, the agency that runs the Californian state exchange, the news was slightly better. The agency reported that it received one million hits on its website during the first 90 minutes after the exchange opened. By 3 p.m., this number had escalated to five million hits, and the two contact centers handling calls had received 17,000 phone calls. While traffic was reported to be slow on the Covered California website, no major glitches were reported, according to CBS Los Angeles. Officials in California reported they would be doing site maintenance overnight to optimize performance.

Idaho’s new health insurance marketplace exchange (which is a joint state-federal venture) fired up Oct. 1 reporting both high traffic and just a few temporary glitches, according to the Idaho Statesman. (But then, consider the population of Idaho compared to that of New York or California.) Technical problems in Maryland and Minnesota delayed the launch of the enrollment process for all or most of the first day.

On the federal level, officials said more than 2.8 million visitors between midnight and late afternoon contributed to long wait times for access to, the website they are running for 36 states. The New York Times reported that a clear picture of the scope of the initial wave of enrollees could take months to emerge, and that states that launched their own exchanges were at varying levels of preparedness. Refinement of the contact center and website technology was expected to continue, and sites will likely work better as traffic evens out.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi