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Complex Obama health care law may boost jobs

New hires will help Americans navigate system

WASHINGTON — Amid a torrent of speculation about the impact of the Obama health care law on the economy, one thing seems clear: The law is spurring a raft of new jobs in call centers, computer companies, and community organizations to help Americans understand the complex law and navigate the new insurance marketplaces.

About 7,000 to 9,000 new customer service agents will be needed to man phones and Web chats for the marketplace, called an exchange, the federal government will run for more than half of the states, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said. Additional agents will be needed for exchanges being run by the states themselves.

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Altogether, tens of thousands of people could be hired during the next several years to set up and support the online marketplaces, according to some estimates. Individuals and small businesses will use the exchanges to buy health insurance, with open enrollment beginning Oct. 1 and coverage starting Jan. 1.

‘‘There will be a burst of employment associated with ramping [these programs] up,’’ said Mark Duggan, faculty director of the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative.

The hiring for call centers and exchanges represents just one aspect of the law’s potential impact on the economy. Just as with every other aspect of the law, there is sharp disagreement on whether the Affordable Care Act will help or hinder the economy.

Robert Laszewski, a health care policy consultant, said the law would be ‘‘a big jobs bill’’ because of the billions of dollars of state and federal money required to implement it.

Some critics said it was not necessarily a good thing that thousands of people will have to be hired to explain the complicated law.

Other critics said the law will hurt hiring by employers that want to avoid having to comply with a part requiring them to provide workers with insurance.

That mandate, which applies to companies employing 50 or more people, was delayed until January 2015, partially due to objections from businesses. But Duggan said that the mandate’s impact on hiring has been vastly ‘‘overstated’’ and that only ‘‘a very small share of employers in the US’’ would be affected by it.

The Affordable Care Act is designed to provide coverage to millions of Americans — and that in itself is likely to spur more hiring by hospitals and other facilities that provide health-care services, Duggan said.

But Bob Kocher, a former Obama health-policy adviser who is now a partner at the venture capital firm Venrock, based in Cambridge, Mass., is skeptical that there will be a big demand for health services as a result of the law, because the uninsured are young and healthy, he said.

‘‘Adding jobs without adding demand leads to higher costs,’’ Kocher said.

Some of the jobs tied to the initial implementation of the law may be temporary or part-time positions. But others, such as those at the call centers, could last for years.

Hiring for call centers for state-run exchanges probably will be on a smaller scale than that for call centers for the federal exchange.

The customer service firm Maximus, based in Reston, Va., has contracts with the District of Columbia and five states: Maryland, Hawaii, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York. Offices are located primarily in those states and will hire local residents, said Bruce Caswell, president and general manager of Maximus’s health services segment.

Maximus plans to hire 4,000 people, with more than half of the positions created as part of a subcontract with General Dynamics subsidiary Vangent. Arlington, Va.-based Vangent will operate up to 17 call centers across the country, where thousands of agents will answer telephone and Web chat inquiries about the exchanges run by the federal government.

Meanwhile, Reston-based records-management firm Serco plans to hire 1,500 workers for jobs in Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas, said Alan Hill, vice president of corporate communications. Most new hires primarily will handle the coming influx of paper applications for insurance coverage.

Companies also are hiring people to manage the complex logistics of getting the exchange websites and networks up and running. Health-care IT firm hCentive, also in Reston, has contracts with Kentucky, Colorado, and New York.

The company has added about 100 new people in the last year and a half, chief operating officer Agarwala said.

Other jobs are cropping up in outreach and marketing. That is not surprising, given that four out of five Americans said that they have heard little to nothing about insurance exchanges, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

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