Hundreds of consumers trying to buy health insurance through the Massachusetts Health Connector continue to encounter snags, even as new leadership works to fix a balky system.
Louis Gutierrez, the Connector’s executive director, told the agency’s governing board Thursday his staff is conducting a top-to-bottom review of customer-service shortfalls and will submit plans to repair them within six weeks.
“We had several deeply problematic back-office operational deficits that led directly to unacceptable customer service for a significant number of customers,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez attributed the problems to the need for paper workarounds at key junctures in the insurance-buying process. That includes when consumers have selected a plan and that information is transferred to Dell Inc., the company that handles billing. Problems have also emerged when Dell then sends enrollment information to insurers.
The Connector’s software also lacks the ability to make some changes, such as adding a newborn child to coverage.
Gutierrez estimated that about 1 percent of Connector users are affected by these problems, but “when you have large numbers like we do that’s a lot of people.” About 1,000 people continued to wait for issues to be resolved Thursday, he said.
Even so, since February an additional 30,000 people have bought insurance through the Connector, a state agency serving people who do not obtain coverage through an employer, bringing to 141,585 the number of people who had enrolled as of April 6.
Although the open enrollment period for the Connector ended in February, there are many exceptions that permit people to sign up at other times.
Appointed in January, Gutierrez assumed leadership of the Connector four months after it rolled out new software to replace the system that failed disastrously in 2013. The new program, cobbled together in barely nine months, successfully enrolled tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents, but many had frustrating experiences with billing, enrollment, and customer service.
Gutierrez said the Connector’s call center had improved its performance. Wait times are shorter, and the number of callers hanging up in frustration — above 50 percent during peak times — was down to 3 percent Wednesday, he said.
With the call center doing better, he said, “Now, we’re turning our focus to all of those back-office operations.”
Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services and chairwoman of the Connector board, said she had received many e-mails from distressed consumers. “I look forward to the day when there is zero e-mails that I have to forward to the Connector,” she said.
That day cannot come too soon for David Valade of Melrose, who has his fingers crossed that the Connector will not mistakenly withdraw money from his bank account next month. Valade, 54, a self-employed software consultant, bought coverage in December, effective in January. But the Connector withdrew double the premium from his account. When he pointed out the problem, the Connector agreed to apply the extra payment to his February premium.
But then in February, the Connector withdrew four times the correct premium for his March coverage. Valade said he made eight phone calls between Feb. 25 and March 27, often waiting on hold for a half-hour or more, before the matter was resolved, with the Connector agreeing to apply the money to future premiums.
Meanwhile, Valade canceled the electronic-fund transfer authorization, preferring to pay future premiums on his own rather than letting the Connector withdraw them. He hopes the message got through.
Connector officials said about 200 people experienced similar billing errors related to the online payment portal, but promised in the future the agency will scan for and block duplicate payments.
Julia Greene, 53, of Lynn, had a different problem: When she applied to buy health insurance, the Connector mistakenly labeled her as eligible for MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, even though her income was too high.
As long as she was enrolled in MassHealth, she was blocked from buying subsidized insurance. Greene did not want to accept a government benefit to which she was not entitled, but could not get anyone at the Connector to fix the problem. “It’s embarrassing,” she said. “I know I’m not eligible for MassHealth.”
Only the intervention of her state representative, Lori Ehrlich, resolved the problem — months later. Meanwhile, Greene continued to pay $700 a month for temporary coverage. She has a new health plan that started April 1.
“It’s like a million-gazillion glitches,” Greene said. “It’s amazing how messed up it is.”
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