UPDATE: Late Wednesday, Covered California officials said they overstated the number of visitors to the website on Tuesday. They revised the number downward to about 500,000 individual visitors. About 19,000 people called the two Covered California call centers, they said.
When California launched the state’s new health insurance marketplace on Tuesday morning, the San Luis Obispo County Department of Social Services was more than ready.
Eight specialists and a supervisor were poised to answer phones at the county’s new call center, taking referrals from Covered California for people whose lower income qualified them to receive Medi-Cal rather than buy health insurance through the exchange.
About 15,000 low-income county residents are expected to qualify for Medi-Cal under a massive expansion of the program, called for in the federal Affordable Care Act.
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But so far, Covered California has routed just two calls to the county call center.
“The calls aren’t getting forwarded to us,” said Mark Haas, regional manager for the county Department of Social Services. “The reason is that people are on hold for up to three hours when they call Covered California. They’re just hanging up. So we’re not getting that warm hand-off to us that had been planned.”
Haas said Covered California apparently also needs to do some staff training because one of the two calls should have been routed to San Diego.
The breakdown in communication between the state program and the county is one more sign that Covered California has been overwhelmed since it started operations at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
On its first day, the health insurance exchange tweeted that it received 5 million hits to its website and 17,000 calls by 3 p.m. Website users complained that they had trouble loading pages, and callers were told that wait times exceeded 30 minutes.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Covered California said she would have someone look into the communication breakdown.
Covered California is designed as a clearinghouse for uninsured people to buy affordable health insurance with federal subsidies available for those who meet income requirements. People whose income falls below 133 percent of the federal poverty level would qualify for Medi-Cal.
Exchange operators are supposed to connect Medi-Cal applicants to their county Department of Social Services call center in a “warm hand-off” phone call, said Tracy Schiro, assistant director of the county Department of Social Services.
“I’m absolutely disappointed that we’re not getting those calls. I expected more than two,” she said. “I’m not surprised that so many people are calling Covered California, though, because this is monumental. People need and want health care.”
Traditionally, Medi-Cal has only been available to children, disabled adults, and single adults with dependent children. Under the federally funded expansion, single adults and two-parent families who meet income requirements can qualify for Medi-Cal beginning Jan. 1.
Schiro was in Sacramento on Wednesday, attending a statewide conference of the County Welfare Directors Association of California. She said administrators from counties across the state were experiencing similar breakdowns in Medi-Cal call transfers.
“This is happening across the state,” she said.
Schiro said that people who aren’t sure whether they qualify for Medi-Cal or subsidized insurance should wait a couple of weeks to allow Covered California to work out its bugs.
People who know they qualify for Medi-Cal under the new guidelines can apply directly to the county instead of through Covered California, she said.
“We’re just encouraging those people to come into our offices,” she said.
Who to contactCovered California: coveredca.com
SLO County Department of Social Services: 781-1600