Officials at Minnesota’s health insurance exchange, MNsure, vowed to beef up call center staff for the final weeks of open enrollment, hoping to reverse lengthy call delays in late December 2015 that hearken back to the exchange’s disastrous first year rollout.
Just past a key deadline for consumers to buy insurance effective for the New Year, MNsure says it’s on track to meet projections for signups in the private plans that fund its budget. Open enrollment ends Jan. 31.
But after focusing last year on improving its call center to soothe frustrated consumers, some customers still spent more than an hour waiting for help in the final week of December.
Call center data shows a sharp spike in call wait times in the days leading up to the Dec. 28 deadline, peaking at an average of more than an hour on the final day. Nearly half of MNsure’s callers in that final week of December hung up before the call was answered. The exchange didn’t keep the same detailed statistics before this year, but monthly averages show the average wait time doubled, from less than six minutes in December 2014 to more than 13 minutes last month.
Renewed call center woes could provide more fodder to Republicans who say the state should ditch its own exchange and pivot to the federal hub.
“It’s a huge step backward,” said state Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston. “The call times are just the symptom of the disease. MNsure has got so many other problems. I don’t know where you start.”
MNsure Chief Executive Officer Allison O’Toole called the long waits the result of a “perfect storm” that included an actual storm — an ice blast in late December that left a vendor’s call center in Illinois severely short-staffed. She also said an overlapping renewal date for low-income residents on public programs and the usual rush of last-minute inquiries exacerbated the problem.
With the pressure from public programs now lifted and hopes that another storm doesn’t cause staffing problems, O’Toole said customers should expect shorter delays in the final weeks of registration. Still, the exchange plans to expand staff at both its own call center and at third-party vendors, though O’Toole did not have specifics on how many employees it would add.
O’Toole also said MNsure would focus its advertising on trying to persuade customers not to procrastinate and head to the exchange well ahead of the Jan. 31 close.
“That message has generally fallen on deaf ears,” she said.