This Saturday, the second annual open enrollment period kicks off for health insurance plans governed by the Affordable Care Act.
A year after its botched rollout, companies that worked closely on the initial launch are gearing up for phase two as millions of Americans are expected to sign up for coverage yet again or renew their existing options.
For Reston-based contractor Maximus, the 2013 launch of the Act was a learning experience, said Eric Rubin, president of the company’s health-care operations division.
Maximus operated customer help-lines for health-care exchanges in five states, including Maryland as well as the District (Virginia relies on the federally run exchange). The company has a $25 million contract with the District’s exchange and a $36 million contract with Maryland’s exchange.
The exchange “contact centers,” as the offices are known, can be thought of as the central hub for customer calls, Rubin said.
That means Maximus employees were responsible for fielding questions from all those trying to sign up for coverage online and guide them through the application process.
The pure volume of calls received last year was overwhelming, Rubin said.
Consequently, the most important lesson the company learned was the need for more contingency planning.
“Make sure you have a plan B, and a plan C, and a plan D in case the technology doesn’t work,” he said.
This time around, Maximus has invested more time in training people and beefing up its customer service offerings, he said.
One of the key lessons the company learned from 2013 was the importance of a human touch.
Since the experience of signing up for health care was brand new to millions of Americans, the ability to speak to a person who could guide them through the process was vital, Rubin said.
“We learned that if callers could talk to a live person, they were more likely to enroll than if they just went online,” he said.
There are more insurance offerings by companies this year, and some states are expanding Medicaid coverage. That’s why Maximus expects a lot of calls from people trying to decide if they should change their health plans.
“We expect questions such as ‘Tell me what’s changed, should I make a change, what do I need to do?’” he said.
The company has 2,500 employees working in all six states. In 2013, Maximus ended up having to double that number to meet demand. This year, the company thinks it is better prepared, but is planning to have extra staff on hand in case the need arises, Rubin said.
Another lesson the company learned was that staffers should be able to improvise when things go wrong.
That’s why employees have been trained to quickly assess callers’ problems and connect them to the appropriate person, Rubin said.
For instance, if a customer calls to be walked through a specific insurance plan, the employee would transfer them to a health insurance broker, who can legally recommend an option. If a caller understands the options but doesn’t know how to sign up online or faces technical difficulties, they will be directed to someone who can take them through the process or referred to a local center in their Zip code for a paper sign up.
Finally, each contact center has local employees who are familiar with the state’s exchange and its unique issues.
In the District for instance, callers such as congressional staffers were more well-informed about their options, Rubin said.
“They were looking for a good consumer experience,” he said.
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