California's health insurance exchange failed to meet its first-class standards, frustrating tens of thousands of customers trying to enroll in coverage over the first three months of the program, officials said Thursday.
In a rare moment of public soul-searching, Covered California officials described the exchange's level of service as "completely unacceptable," and said they would apply the lessons to the next three months of enrollment commencing March 31.
"We know that thousands didn't have a good experience," Yolanda Richardson, deputy chief operations officer, told the exchange's board of directors on Thursday. "We're not satisfied with that. And we know we have a lot of work to do."
California continues to lead the nation with about 625,000 people enrolled in coverage. But long wait times and sluggish performance periodically plagued the exchange's customer service center and online enrollment portal.
"In many instances we did not meet our standard going back to our guiding principle of providing a first-class customer service experience," Richardson said, adding that the goal was to answer 80 percent of the calls in 30 seconds or fewer.
Wait times routinely exceeded one hour and in some cases were so long that customers were automatically disconnected, officials said.
The agency's inability to certify enough insurance agents and inaccurate or confusing notices mailed to consumers forced more of them to the phone lines and the internet. In some cases, they received no notices entirely, officials said.
The exchange is now working to add another 350 customer-service employees and a dedicated phone line for insurance agents. It also is ramping up its outreach to Latinos and other groups that experienced poor enrollment. Some 3,500 certified enrollment counselors are bilingual.
Executive Director Peter V. Lee said the exchange was boosting its marketing efforts in part thanks to a $155 million federal grant.
"Doing additional marketing is needed and is appropriate," Lee said, adding that in-person assistance will be a critical component in the coming months.
Earlier Thursday, Lee announced that former state Finance Director Ana Matosantos was hired as a senior adviser. Her compensation was not immediately known.
PHOTO: The executive director of Covered California, Peter V. Lee, speaks to members of the media during the launch of Covered California in Rancho Cordova on Oct. 1, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton.