‘No, you cannot do that': Trying to buy Obamacare over the phone


Not an attempt, we hope, to buy coverage via the phone. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

With the Web site still experiencing problems, the White House has begun directing shoppers for insurance under the new health-care law to use a call center instead of HealthCare.Gov. Health and Human Services put out this graphic today, highlighting the different ways to "enroll" in coverage.


That works fine -- unless you're interested in purchasing a health insurance policy. In conversations this afternoon with the call center, I was repeatedly told that I could not enroll in coverage over the phone.

"The only thing we can do is submit an application for you," one call-center representative told me. "We can't purchase anything for you."

"No, you cannot do that," another one said, when I told her I had completed my application and would like to enroll in a specific plan.

There are essentially three steps involved in buying coverage through the marketplace. The first is filling out an application that includes information about where you live, how much you earn and who is in your family. That part the call center does have the ability to help out with.

The second is eligibility verification: Healthcare.Gov needs to double-check that the shopper is the person they say they are, that they live in the right state and that have reported their income accurately. A computer system does this part; a call-center agent cannot.

The last step is enrollment: picking a specific plan and paying the first month's premium. That payment goes to the insurance plan of the shopper's choosing, not to HealthCare.Gov, which helps explain why the call center cannot accept shoppers' payments.

"I pulled your application up, and it wouldn't allow me at this time to get past the point you were at as far as enrollment," the third call-center agent I spoke to said. He was the only call-center agent I spoke with who thought I would be able to do this at some point in the future.

"Once we get the system errors and technical issues resolved, we'll be able to help you with enrollment," he said. "Currently we are not, because of technical issues."

The call center is certainly an option for people who want to fill out the initial application. But as for purchasing insurance, that's going to require a working Web site.

Update: Health and Human Services spokeswoman Joanne Peters emails over a statement saying that consumers should be able to enroll over the phone.

“Consumers can apply for and enroll in a health insurance plan over the phone from beginning to end," her statement says. "However, when call volume is high, or when the application is unable to be processed online, call center representatives will help to fill out an application and the consumer will be contacted at a later time to move forward with shopping and enrolling in a plan.  We encourage Americans and their families to continue use all the resources available to apply for insurance – by phone, in person, by mail, or online.”

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Sarah Kliff · October 23, 2013