Exchange Hopes New Hires Will Improve Service, Increase Minority Enrollment

The Covered California board yesterday took a frank look at its marketing and customer service efforts and found them lacking. One exchange official called the customer service experience “completely unacceptable.”

“We know that thousands didn’t have a good experience,” said Yolanda Richardson, deputy chief operations officer for the new health benefit exchange. “We’re not satisfied with that. We know we have a lot of work to do.”

The board decided to boost the number of enrollment assisters and service center workers and to use a federal grant to raise its marketing profile.

The other major concern raised at yesterday’s board meeting was the low rate of sign-ups among some minority groups, particularly blacks and Latinos. Covered California enrolled 625,000 Californians through Jan. 15 but exchange officials and consumer advocates are unhappy that only 20% are Latino.

“This is the first year ever of doing open enrollment, and we have a lot to learn,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California. “We do not think we have all of the answers but we do feel we have some of them.

Some of the issues between the health plans and Covered California and the troubles people have had [accessing enrollment help], we very much take to heart. We have not had great customer service.”

Wait times often exceeded a full hour at the service centers, exchange officials said, and some potential enrollees were accidentally disconnected because the wait was so long.

“We think to reach young Latinos, it’s a workforce issue,” said Autumn Ogden, policy coordinator at California Coverage and Health Initiatives, a not-for-profit health advocacy group. “We need more people on the ground.”

Lee said the exchange plans to add 350 enrollment assisters, and it will revamp its outreach program to Latinos and to limited-English-proficient Californians.

“We’re laying track and running the train on it at the same time,” exchange board chair Diana Dooley said. “We are learning and correcting as we go. I often say, when people ask me why California has done so well [in creating the exchange, I say, ‘Well, we’re grading on a curve.’ We’re not perfect, and there are a lot of things left to work out.”

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