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Officials look into long Health Connector hotline waits

Many just hung up without being helped

The Massachusetts Health Connector will examine why its call center became so overwhelmed that more than half the callers during peak times hung up in frustration after being left on hold for too long.

The call center’s performance was among the major areas targeted for improvement by Connector officials Thursday at the monthly meeting of the agency’s governing board, as the Connector prepared for the final enrollment push over the weekend.

Since Nov. 15, 338,659 people have enrolled in health coverage.

Despite adding staff, with sometimes more than 700 on the job, the Connector’s call centers were afflicted with long wait times and high hang-up rates. From Nov. 15 to Tuesday, the average wait time was 11.4 minutes and one in five callers abandoned his or her call. On peak days, however, waits averaged 50 minutes, and 60 percent of callers hung up without being helped.

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Maydad Cohen, the top official overseeing the rebuilding of the Connector website, said Connector authorities were surprised by both the number and duration of the calls. The Connector will analyze why people decided to call and explore ways to better help them online, he said.

“Putting 1,000 people on the phone is the answer, but who can afford it?” said Cohen, who is leaving his post March 6. On average, about 500 full-time workers were answering the phones, but that proved to be insufficient.

Even with a well-functioning website, said Ashley Hague, the Connector’s deputy executive director, “When it’s about health insurance, people have thousands of questions.”

For the short term, the Connector plans to have extended hours and additional staff at the call centers and the walk-in center to help people meet Sunday’s deadline for choosing coverage. People who do not get health insurance from an employer, and have not yet signed up for coverage, need to complete an application and enroll in Medicaid or select a health insurance plan by Sunday.

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Consumers have until Feb. 23 to pay for the coverage, a deadline that could be delayed if necessary. But Sunday’s deadline for selecting a plan is firm.

The call centers will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The walk-in center at 133 Portland St. in Boston will be open, with additional staff, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

But if the storm forecast for the weekend produces substantial snowfall, the additional staff may not be available. For updates, consumers can check mahealthconnector.org.

Another improvement promised for the next enrollment season will involve streamlining the payment system, a source of confusion and frustration for many. Currently, people need to leave the Connector website after selecting insurance and log on to a different site to pay. The site did not provide confirmation when payments were received.

In the future, the payment system is expected to be fully integrated with the Connector and function more like an online retailer.

The Connector rolled out new software Nov. 15 to replace a system that failed to function and had to be scrapped during the 2013-14 enrollment period.

“I have to say I am thrilled, given where the state was a year ago,” said Louis Gutierrez, the Connector’s newly appointed executive director and a longtime information technology specialist. “It is a signature achievement of a lot of dedicated staff. . . . I am very satisfied with the open enrollment.”

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From Nov. 15 to Tuesday, 237,741 people enrolled in MassHealth, and 100,918 selected and paid for a health plan through the Connector.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer