POLITICS
01/30/2017 09:57 pm ET

'Heartbreaking' -- Obamacare Phone Counselor Talks About The Calls Coming In

"They want to know what will happen to their health insurance."

The telephone operators who answer questions about Healthcare.gov, the website for buying Affordable Care Act insurance, have been busy lately. That’s not surprising, given that Tuesday is the last day to purchase coverage for the rest of 2017.

But this year, something is different: Obamacare’s future is in doubt. And that’s made for some difficult moments.

Republicans have vowed to repeal the 2010 health care law and President Donald Trump has already issued an executive order that could weaken the program while it’s still on the books. The damage to the market could start in 2018 ― or even earlier, under some scenarios.

With these possibilities getting more and more attention in the media, the people who have coverage through Obamacare are getting worried ― and, as one phone operator told The Huffington Post, they have been calling. “It’s heartbreaking, because we can’t tell these people that it will be okay, because we don’t know if it will be okay.”

The operator was careful to say that not everybody calling is in a panic. In fact, a sizable minority of people are telephoning just to say how happy they are that the law, which they really don’t like, might finally go away.

But more often than not, the callers are scared ― and it seems the attendants haven’t gotten specific guidance on what to tell them. The Obama administration would routinely send along updated scripts when a news event was likely to prompt new questions and calls, but, according to this operator, there’s been nothing like that since Trump took office.

They don’t know if they’re going to be able to take their medicines, or see their doctors.

The operator, who works for a government contractor, agreed to answer questions about this year’s open enrollment ― and what callers are saying. The only condition was anonymity, because workplace rules forbid employees from speaking to the media. (The Huffington Post verified the operator’s identity independently.)

What follows is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity.

What are you hearing this year that is different?

Because the website is working so much better … the people calling us don’t really need us like they needed us before. It used to be that people relied on us to walk them through the application process. Now, they just need questions answered. And now a lot of those people are asking questions like, “Will I have health insurance?” We can’t really answer them with certainty.

There’s also a clear division now. You have some people, they want to know what will happen to their health insurance. They don’t know if they’re going to be able to take their medicines, or see their doctors. And that’s about 60, maybe 70 percent of the calls we end up getting. The rest, so I guess that’s the other 30 to 40 percent, are people who are saying I can’t wait for this to go away.

The ones who say they can’t wait for it to go away. What do they say?

They don’t like to have to fill in an application for insurance for a doctor they can’t visit because, you know, he’s 60 miles away, in another town. It’s not someplace they go regularly. Sometimes they say that the deductibles or the monthly premiums are just too much.

Sometimes they say that the deductibles or the monthly premiums are just too much.

In the past, we’ve had people call us and they’d be like those folks you hear about ― they’d have a negative attitude about the health care law. And then they would find what the price would actually be, and they were amazed. In a good way. But there hasn’t been so much of that this year. I think everybody whose mind could have been changed has been changed.

What about the 60 to 70 percent, the ones who are worried, what are those like?

These people are calling in, and they want to make sure they will be covered. They want reassurances that if they sign up for insurance right now, that it will still be in effect for the rest of the year.

The answer we give them is that, according to the information we’ve been given, we believe they will have coverage. If they are signing up through open enrollment, then they should have the insurance, and they will get the tax credits if they are eligible, at least through the end of the year ― again, based on the information that has been given to us. Congress has given us no indication that they will pull everything.

The problem is that everything is so up in the air. And people know it. They are calling us with questions, and we don’t know what to tell them, because no one has given us any indication of what may happen. So there’s a general unease around here, about everyone who is calling in and talking to us. They just want to know, and we don’t feel like we have definitive answers for them.

Has anybody shared their stories about what it would mean to lose insurance?

In the the first couple of years, a lot of what we were doing was teaching people about insurance ― this is how coverage works. That kind of thing. And even now, we get calls from people who have never had insurance before. They don’t know what a premium is. They don’t know what a deductible is. So some of that is education.

But once they’ve been on it for a couple of years, they understand and say, okay, I wouldn’t be able to afford my medicine ― say, my insulin ― if it wasn’t for this insurance. Or they went to the doctor and found a tumor that they didn’t know they had. That’s because they had insurance now.

Everything is so up in the air. And people know it.

You’ve actually had calls like that?

Oh, yeah, it’s a daily thing. On average, a single CSR [customer service representative] will take anywhere from 10 to 20 calls a day, depending on the length and complexity of the questions they are getting. And I’d say usually it’s one to three calls a day are like that ― a story where somebody wouldn’t be able to afford this medicine if it weren’t for this law.

What do you tell these people?

Unfortunately, a lot of it is toeing the line of what we are allowed to say right now. We don’t have a whole lot of information. We can tell them that, to the best of our knowledge, nothing is changing immediately. But it flies in the face of everything we’ve seen on the television. And it’s heartbreaking, because we can’t tell these people that it will be okay, because we don’t know if it will be okay.

Have you gotten any guidance? Was any given to you?

No, nothing like that. There is a whole other company, a third party, responsible for writing all of our scripted information ― giving the kinds of things we are allowed to say on the phone. And they have to get clearance from CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] on what we are allowed to say.

Everything from the past week has been radio silence, as to what we are and are not allowed to say.

Is that unusual?

Yes. Typically we have gotten updates pretty regularly, especially when there are things like this in the media. Before, if there was something in the news ... within 24 to 36 hours we would have new language and scripting, and we were allowed to say, okay, here is the new information we have.

To go a week from President Trump’s initial executive order last Friday, with almost no updates as to what may happen. I don’t even know if they know what’s going to happen yet. I don’t really think anybody knows what’s going to happen yet.

HuffPost

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