My quest to buy health insurance on the California Exchange -- CoveredCA.com -- is becoming a surreal journey through crowded queues and mysterious errors. As one who believes wholeheartedly in the good things the Affordable Care Act is doing, it's enormously frustrating to be writing this, but time is running out.
Lesson #1: Do not wait until the last minute to complete your enrollment. If you do, you may encounter errors or unexpected glitches.
For background, we are currently covered under a grandfathered policy that pays only if one of us has a dire medical emergency. Worse yet, it's a COBRA policy, so our premium is around $1200 per month. In October, we prepaid for November and December and then sent notification that it should terminate on December 31st, anticipating January 1st as the date for our brand, spanking new better insurance.
I created an account on Covered California on October 3rd, amid site delays and incredibly frustrating load times. Still, I got a quote and saved everything so I could come back to it after I had verified my doctor's participation in the exchange plan I had chosen. I also wanted to research the list of drugs covered under the plan, since one of our primary expenses are maintenance medications for a chronic condition.
I also needed clarification on how to verify our income, since we don't receive paychecks or even monthly incomes. Self-employed people tend to receive payments in fits and starts. A telephone call to the service line helped with that.
With all my ducks in a row, documents scanned, and armed with knowledge, I sat down two weeks ago to log in and finish the requirements. Since I had received several letters in the mail nagging me to finish it, I figured I'd upload everything, make that first payment, and be done.
Computer gremlins had other plans
When I sat down to finish off our enrollment, I realized I had forgotten the password I had used to create the account. No big deal, right? Change the password and move to the next square, which I did.
Not so fast. After answering the three security questions I had chosen and changing the password, I got a mysterious error. Figuring the password change hadn't taken, I shut everything down and left myself a note to try the next day.
The online chat helpline isn't so helpful
After several more tries, I tried the online chat option. Twice. Both times, I got a message saying the wait time was 30 minutes or so, so I left it to stew while working on other things. Both times, I would get to within 10 minutes of getting someone to help me before receiving the rather rude and unhelpful message that there was no one to help me, and the chat had been terminated.
Seriously, if this is the best these companies can do with online help services, they need a reality check about what it feels like to be a customer sitting in the queue, because that is an infuriating message to get when you're sitting in front of your computer waiting to resolve a problem.
Next stop: the telephone
Undeterred, I decided to try calling their customer service line. When I called in October, I got through right away and they were quite helpful. I was optimistic that they'd be able to resolve my issues or at least put them in front of someone to resolve.
Clearly there is a lot of pent-up demand in California for health coverage. The site even has a notice that the call center is swamped and wait times are long, so I made the call prepared for a nice long wait. Waiting is fine. Waiting and being unceremoniously dropped isn't. That happened to me on four separate occasions.
Being a tenacious sort, I decided to call at exactly 8 AM when they opened. I dialed the number up on my phone, waited until the stroke of 8 -- if you do it sooner a recording tells you to call back during normal hours -- and I hit that "call" button on the iPhone. Luck! The queue was only ten minutes deep, so all looked good to get through.
45 minutes later, success! I had a real person on the line who got my name, my phone number, and seemed to be familiar with my problem. My hopes rose. She was able to see our names, at least, and said she was resetting the account for me. I got more optimistic.
My hopes were dashed a few minutes later, when she said she was also getting error messages and would need to check with a supervisor. On hold I went, and she went off to get some higher-up help. She came back, tried to work the magic on the account, but once again, it failed.
At that point, she said she would have to refer it to the technical support department, and they would be calling me back to resolve it.
I haven't heard from them yet.
Time is running out
December 23rd is the deadline. Feeling desperate and armed with better information than I was the first time, I tried to create a second account with a different email address, in a fresh browser that had never seen the likes of CoveredCA.com.
No luck. Same error. So I tried the online chat queue again, only to be dumped with 4 minutes to go. I tried the customer service number, and didn't even get to the queue, because it's swamped and maxed out.
I'm annoyed. Really annoyed. So annoyed that I'm writing this post because I am within a fingertip's reach of making this health insurance become reality, and I can't get anyone to actually close the deal for me. If this is happening to me and I actually know something about computers and the Internet AND health insurance, how much more frustrating must it be for other people?
Don't misconstrue this as a complaint about Obamacare. It's not. In fact, it's a ringing endorsement for how desperately I want to enroll in it. But for crying out loud, California. These errors are the same kinds of errors that dogged Healthcare.gov until they fixed them! I shouldn't have the same issues today that others had before the fix went in for the national site!
I realize there is high demand, busy phones and chat queues, but it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that your error messages need to actually be friendly, and if you're going to feed someone an error number that number ought to be referred to someone who can actually help! Sending a user a message that the system has encountered Error Number @#$#@Q$# is useless. You might as well say "go home, little girl, we don't want you here."
Worse yet, giving that error message without anywhere to report it is really awful.
Like Tom Coburn, I think the exchanges will definitely work fine over time. But I don't have time. So fix it, California. And find a way for me to finish this damned enrollment.