Dialing In to Health Insurance


Want to reach out and touch someone?

With a health insurance marketplace, or exchange, open and ready for business in California, consumers now have access to a number of options when considering health care coverage.

Almost as plentiful as the options for health insurance through Covered California are the ways in which a consumer may access information and sign up for coverage. A website at CoveredCa.com is supposed to make exploring and selecting a plan easy; community clinics and other health care organizations provide in-person applications; and the state has employed thousands of assisters to offer help for those not quite comfortable with the process of acquiring health insurance.

While there’s been an emphasis on the usability of Covered California’s web portal – the site had 5 million hits by 3 p.m. on the first day live – and the accessibility provided by assisters, one of the options for applying for coverage that is available to the public may be sitting on a table at home or resting in a purse or pocket.

The good ol’ telephone.

The Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, which established health insurance marketplaces as a key component of health care reform, calls for a “streamlined form that . . . may be filed online, in person, by mail, or by telephone.” While web use is ubiquitous for much of the population, telephones are not out of style yet.

“We know that not everyone has access to a computer or feels comfortable with that particular tool to conduct personal business,” said Covered California spokesperson Larry Hicks.

Lake Research Partners released a survey in June of 2012 titled “Preparing for 2014: Findings from Research with Lower-Income Adults in Three States.” The survey was conducted with adults at or below 138 percent of the Federal Poverty Level in the states of Alabama, Maryland and Michigan. Of those in the survey, most preferred to receive help by phone and to apply for assistance from home. The survey also revealed a digital divide: Of those questioned, 80 percent were confident they could apply online, between 15 and 22 percent said they never use the Internet, and between 11 and 15 percent have no regular Internet access.

Though California’s demographics differ from the states cited in the LRP study, there’s still a need for non-web-based access that is not done in person.

A telephone application for a government program is not new. The 2008 Farm Bill that changed the name of the national food stamp program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) also allowed for state agencies to establish a system where the applicant can verbally consent with a telephonic, or spoken, signature.

In Southern California, 2-1-1 San Diego connects people in the community looking for government resources such as housing assistance, substance abuse help and disaster relief. One of these services is enrolling those in need in CalFresh, the state’s SNAP program. According to 2-1-1 San Diego Chief Operating Officer Bill York, his organization’s approach is that there’s “no wrong door” when it comes to applying for assistance.

York said that the telephone application process for CalFresh through 2-1-1 San Diego includes a recorded application followed by a scripted spoken signature process.

Challenges involved in telephone applications and spoken signatures include how to capture, store and share the signature.

Rachel Cahill, the Director of Policy for Benefits Data Trust, wrote a brief earlier this year titled “Telephonic Signatures: An Essential Tool for Enrollment,” which looked at how spoken signatures could be retained during a telephone application.

“For the consumer, they’re very easy,” Cahill said. “It means you that you can verify verbally instead of having to follow up with paperwork that you in fact want to submit an application.”

Ease is what Danielle Waldby, 31, is looking for. The Florida native recently moved to Los Angeles, and has yet to find steady work outside of dog walking and babysitting. After being denied health care insurance because of a per-exisiting condition, Waldby secured limited coverage through Healthy Way L.A.

Waldby plans to explore her options with Covered California, and said she’ll likely sign up online, but would be willing to do so by phone. “Whichever is easiest,” Waldby said.

“I don’t know how to really go about it,” Waldby added. “You hear lots about it, but then you’re like, how do you really do it and where do you do it.”

Consumers who call Covered California and ask to apply for insurance by telephone will have their application recorded by one of the hundreds of representatives located at three call centers in the state. This process is expected to take approximately 60 minutes, and includes a spoken signature. The application will be stored in the California Healthcare Eligibility and Enrollment Retention System (CalHEERS).

“There is an e-signature where the consumer will need to attest to all the information that all the information provided is true and correct,” Hicks said.

Covered California will be able to process applications in 13 languages. Hicks said that he doesn’t know how many consumers will elect to apply for insurance by phone, but pointed out there are 2,000 certified educators reaching out through community based organizations, labor unions, business associations, school districts and other groups to provide information on how to apply through all platforms.

While online is now the standard for many, Hicks acknowledged the role of the telephone.
“We want to make that particular tool a big piece of what we do, so that’s why we have three call centers in several parts of the state with hundreds of representatives available.”

For more info, call 1-800-300-1506 or visit www.coveredca.com.

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