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Affordable Care Act: Deadline looms amidst call center delays

The deadline to sign up for health insurance is about a week away. This could mean crowded phone lines and last-minute sign-ups at Covered California.
The deadline to sign up for health insurance is about a week away. This could mean crowded phone lines and last-minute sign-ups at Covered California.
Covered California

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There's a little more than a week left until the deadline to sign up for health insurance.

That deadline will likely lead to a rush of phone calls into the health insurance exchange known as Covered California.

Not good, considering the phone system there is already overtaxed.

It's something LA Times reporter Chad Terhune has been following. He joined Take Two for more on the deadline. 


About half of the callers into Covered California over the last six weeks couldn’t get through and ditched their calls. What’s going on?

Simply put, there’s a lot of people with questions about Obamacare and not enough people to help them out right now.

How long are people waiting on average and how many people are dropping the call?

Half of the callers since February are giving up their phone call. They can’t wait, they can’t get through. Their goal was just three percent of people would give up their phone call. That’s about 400,000 people trying to call in and half of them just say, ‘I can’t put up with this, I cant get through.’

And now we’re just a little over a week away. How do you see that affecting the situation?

It’s going to get worse. A lot of people have been putting off signing up. March 31 is the final deadline to getting health insurance for 2014 or you pay a penalty. If you look at the numbers, about a third of callers are getting a busy signal, that’s down from about half of callers. The exchange has said the wait time has gone down, it was 45 minutes now it’s down to 30 minutes. But still that’s a long time to wait.

Are there plans to staff up at these call centers in the home stretch?

The exchange is aware of this problem. As you remember in December they had a similar service meltdown as people were trying to get coverage Jan. 1. They went and asked the federal government for more money; they get $150 million in additional grant money. They have hired more call center representatives but there’s just not time to staff up and add a lot of people at this point. 

Yesterday Covered California released some more data about enrollment. What did we find out there?

It’s been well-publicized. They’ve done very well in overall enrollment. Over 1 million people have enrolled in private health plans through Covered California, well beyond their initial estimates so that’s good news. But for certain groups like Latinos, they’ve gotten a lot of criticism because those numbers have been much lower. Another area of concern was African Americans; they’re only three percent of overall enrollment so that’s way below where they hope to be.

We’ve seen President Obama pull out all the stops with cat GIFs and Zach Galifianakis. Is there anything similar in California?

A huge ad blitz. They’ve tried to feature some real people who signed up and explain in their own words why it’s important to get health insurance. More Spanish language advertising. But back to the point: Will they be able to get through on the phones? Will the website hold up? Will they be able to find someone in their local neighborhood to help them sign up?

What happens if you miss the deadline come March 31?

You could wind up paying a penalty, which is 1 percent of your income. And the next enrollment wouldn’t be until November.