By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
COLORADO SPRINGS — Obamacare moved one step closer to becoming reality in Colorado this week.
Consumers can now talk with live customer service agents if they want to learn about options to get tax credits and buy health insurance through Colorado’s new health exchange. The number is: 1-855-PLANS-4-YOU (1-855-752-6749).
Connect for Health Colorado officially opened its call center this week and dozens of agents are now standing by in a refurbished warehouse where calls started flowing in on Tuesday.
Consumers can’t sign up for health plans yet. Nor can they determine exactly how much they’ll get if they qualify for tax rebates to lower their health insurance costs. But, they can reach agents who are eager to answer basic questions about how the exchange will work.
To actually buy a health plan or qualify for a tax rebate, consumers will need to wait for the official launch date on Oct. 1.
So far about 60 customer service agents have taken four-week training classes and are ready to guide consumers. Those numbers will increase to 187 for Oct. 1. Managers will add more agents if necessary. One group of workers will specialize in speaking Spanish. If help is needed with additional languages, workers can tap outside experts who can handle 173 different languages.
“We’ll be ready for whatever call volume we have,” said Cammie Blais, Connect for Health’s chief financial officer.
Workers will earn between $11 and $20 each per hour and the jobs — not surprisingly — come with health benefits. Connect for Health will also have some in-house insurance agents who can give more specific answers if callers want advice on which plan suits them best. Customer service agents aren’t allowed to recommend specific plans whereas licensed agents are allowed to make recommendations.
“From a customer service perspective, our goal is to be prepared for all contingencies,” said Rolando Salinas, a senior executive for Eventus Solutions Group, who helped oversee the transformation of the center form an old Honeywell call center to the 25,000-square-foot Connect for Health center. Managers liked the fact that the warehouse had windows and space for an airy break room with some outdoor seating and a view to the west of Cheyenne Mountain. Setting up the center cost about $3 million and required workers to install 25 miles of new cable in 10 days.
“And it worked,” Salinas said.
Operating the call center during the first couple of years will cost about $8 million a year. Blais expects those costs to decrease over time.
The center sits among several warehouses but is relatively close to busy commercial areas of Colorado Springs, which makes it an attractive work place for employees, center director, Jeff Higgins said. Managers for Connect for Health asked reporters getting a tour not to disclose the specific location to keep the center secure.
The plan is that no customers will be placed on hold. Calls with basic “information seekers” are expected to take 8 to 10 minutes, but if callers want to go through the full enrollment process, calls could take more than an hour.
Creating Colorado’s health exchange has cost nearly $200 million with federal grants funding the bulk of the costs. Managers have set new relatively conservative targets of enrolling about 136,000 people in health plans in 2014 and ramping up to about 300,000 in the third year. By Jan. 1 of 2015, Connect for Health must be self-sustaining, a prospect that Blais says is possible if the exchange hits its enrollment targets.
“We should be good to continue right on into forever. With our founding legislation…we’re responding to what Colorado state (officials) asked of us — providing access to affordable insurance here in the state,” Blais said.
Added Salinas: “We’ve talked about what Obamacare means. This is that living proof that we’re doing it, that people can call and actually speak to someone and get questions answered. This is where the work takes place and that’s a big deal.”