‘Bit of a bust’

Butte County’s Covered California call center quiet on first day of exchange

Arlene Hostetter, assistant director of Butte County’s Department of Employment and Social Services, at the new Affordable Care Act customer-service center in Oroville.

Arlene Hostetter, assistant director of Butte County’s Department of Employment and Social Services, at the new Affordable Care Act customer-service center in Oroville.


Call or go online:
Call the Covered California Customer Service Center at (800) 300-1506 or go to www.coveredca.com for more information on the state’s health-insurance exchange.

On the afternoon of Oct. 1, the day California rolled out its Affordable Care Act health-insurance exchange, Covered California, the phone lines at Butte County’s new customer-service center in Oroville were silent.

But it wasn’t necessarily because Butte County residents weren’t calling. During an interview at the call center, Arlene Hostetter, assistant director of the county’s Department of Employment and Social Services, insisted that the center’s operators were very much prepared to begin answering questions and helping county residents choose between health-insurance plans through the exchange.

She explained, however, that Covered California, which fields all state residents’ calls and routes them to the appropriate service center (there are 32 serving California’s 58 counties), failed to provide her center with login information to access the open-enrollment market’s computer systems, leaving the Oroville center’s operators with little to do.

“So, it’s been a bit of a bust today,” Hostetter said, though she acknowledged that the technical difficulties were somewhat expected considering the scale of the operation. In Butte County alone, anywhere from 9,000 to 30,000 currently uninsured residents are now eligible for enrollment through the insurance exchange, she said. Earlier this year, state officials estimated 4.4 million Californians will be using the exchange by the end of 2016.

Nationally, the story was much the same. On Tuesday, the website serving the 34 states that chose to let the federal government administer their exchanges (for the first year, at least) was flooded with millions of visitors, many of whom encountered frozen pages and error messages, according to The Washington Post.

Bruce Jenkins, a local certified health-insurance exchange agent, agreed that the launch was bound to have its difficulties, both on state and federal levels.

“Are there going to be some glitches and changes in … [administering] the biggest piece of social legislation in the history of the U.S.?” he asked rhetorically during a recent interview in downtown Chico. “Yes. But I think they’ve done as good a job as possible under the time constraints and political pressure.”

Jenkins predicted that, as the ACA actually goes into effect on Jan. 1, the number of people looking into the exchange will only increase. “I imagine December is going to be a big month,” he said.

Open enrollment ends March 31.

Though thousands in Butte County are now eligible to seek subsidized health coverage through the insurance exchange, many of those residents don’t know it, Hostetter said.

“I would say that quite a large percentage of those folks have no idea they’re eligible for purchasing a plan on the exchange,” she said, adding that many are under the impression that, due to the federal-government shutdown, the ACA exchanges weren’t launching on Tuesday.

“I think it’s been clear for a quite a while that [the ACA] is going forward, but it’s still being referred to as a bill instead of a law,” she said.

Jenkins said he believes many have been misinformed or misunderstand how they will be affected by Obamacare.

“People who say, ‘My insurance is going to be more expensive’ [due to the ACA] are crazy,” he said. “A high percentage of people are going to get their insurance lowered. If you’re middle class, or don’t have a family, or you make a lot of money, it’s just going to be business as usual—you’re not going to get a subsidy.”

Jenkins suggested browsing the federal government website (www.healthcare.gov) to get a better understanding of the law, while Hostetter said she believes the clearest picture will be provided by beginning the enrollment process on Covered California’s website—provided it works.

“Until you’re actually able to plug in your numbers, and see what your subsidy would be, you don’t have any sense of the options,” she said.