More help for Californians signing up for new health insurance

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) California's new health insurance exchange is adding more help for people trying to sign up for plans under the new health care law.After getting complaints of long waits on the phones, more operators are being added to the 800-lines. And, on Thursday, a special line was announced for people changing from existing plans to new coverage.Don Kurtz said his family has been frustrated by their experience with Covered CaliforniaCovered California."The 800-number was any place from a half hour to two hours waiting on hold," he told Eyewitness News on Thursday. His daughter was laid off, and needs insurance. They hoped for help with the new system in place under the Affordable Care Act.Kurtz said the state's insurance exchange website wasn't too bad, but it just didn't answer the questions they had. With no luck over the phone lines, they tried other options."We tried the fax, and that didn't work," Kurtz said. He heard that was simply over loaded, and next they turned back to the website."We tried chat," he said. "The one time we got on, we were 180th in the queue." Even email didn't work. Kurtz said those came back marked "failed."Eventually, he reached a supervisor on the phone. That woman helped answer questions and get them going in the right direction. But, they're still waiting for some final paperwork.The phone line back-up is a problem local certified Covered California counselors are also hearing about. "We're getting a lot of that," Linda Flores said, at Clinica Sierra Vista. "They can't get through on the phone, and they can't apply on the phone."More help with the phones is on the way. Clinica program manager Ana Velasquez said she was on a "webinar" with state officials on Thursday morning, and they promised more help on the 800-lines."They would have more operators, especially within the next two weeks, because we expect more volume of calls for people getting more information," Velasquez said. People need to sign up by Dec. 23 to ensure coverage as of next January, she said.Covered California spokeswoman Athena Fleming says there is already a bump in interest and activity."We're receiving thousands of calls into our service center every hour," she wrote in an email on Thursday. "Including 17,000 calls in one 50 minute period last Wednesday." Fleming also said Covered California has allocated more staff, and will soon finish training more than 100 call center staff at their Fresno Service Center to help deal with the long wait times.And, then there's the new consumer hot line. On Thursday Covered California set up a special customer care unit and phone number to help people who are "transitioning from current market health insurance plans to coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act."That toll-free number is (855) 857-0445. State officials say it will be staffed by a team of 25 who have special training to answer questions about the new law, options, calculate eligibility for premium assistance, and deadlines to avoid gaps in coverage.Covered California spokesmen also encourage people to reach out to the trained enrollment counselors.That's exactly what Linda Flores recommends. As one of those counselors, she says plenty of people show up in her office after they've been frustrated by trying to get through on the phones or understand what they need to do on the website."A lot of them are kind of lost," Flores says. "They don't know if it's something that they have to obtain or not."Kurtz says at this point, his daughter's been told materials should be mailed to her by about Christmas. And she'll have to mail them back right away. He says that's cutting it pretty close, he wishes the website would have directed them to the local, in-person counselors.One way to find local counselors is by calling United Way. Their number in Bakersfield is 834-1820.Also, Covered California says they will have enrollment counselors at the North East Branch Library in Bakersfield on Saturday, Dec. 14. Spokeswoman Athena Fleming says no appointment is needed, and people can talk to someone in person.That's what the counselor at Clinica Sierra Vista advises. Flores says it's good news that there's the new consumer hot line, and that may help people get answers on the status of their applications. It's also going to help if there are more operators answering the 800-lines.But, Flores thinks it's actually better and faster to go to one of the certified counselors. "It's less time to come in, than it is on the phone," she says. "They're waiting longer on the phone, and they're not getting that face to face information, and on the phone it's kind of confusing them."