HOUSTON -- When computer glitches locked out Americans from applying online for the Affordable Care Act, a toll free number promised help. But a former federal contract worker says that helpline needs help of its own.
The frustration with the government’s health care website has been felt from the Oval Office to our own backyard.
“We fumbled the rollout on this health care law,” President Obama recently said.
“We couldn’t log in so it was totally a disaster,” said Houstonian Tony Evans.
“I’ve been trying since October,” added Debra Coleman, another Houston resident.
Even the program’s so-called “navigators” have hit stumbling blocks.
“There's been hiccups all the way, anytime you do something this big, this large, there's going to be hiccups," said navigator Orel Fitzsimmons.
But then came a temporary fix—the government’s 1-800 number that was supposed to be a lifeline and a workaround for citizens needing insurance. But the problem?
'It was a mess," said Ashley Jackson.
Jackson was one of 950 workers at a federally-funded call center in the 5900 block of Corporate Drive in Southwest Houston. She called her experience “government haywire.”
"I'm getting paid just sitting here on the clock by not doing nothing (sic),” Jackson said.
For the first two weeks in October, Jackson said instead of answering the public's phone calls, hundreds of call takers did little to no work.
I-Team: “What did you do for eight hours?”
Jackson: “Sit there at the desk, sit there and talk with somebody sitting next to me."
She said during this time she and her co-workers were getting paid at the taxpayers' expense. According to Jackson, the problem was that their workstations hadn’t been set up.
But even when they eventually were, there was another problem--the call center's computers couldn't access the government website any better than the general public could.
Jackson: “Try back in 30 minutes, system temporarily down.”
I-Team: “But you're the place to call if the system was temporarily down?
Jackson: “Yeah, but that's what happened.”
I-Team: “Well how backwards is that?
Jackson: “I know."
The result, Jackson said, is when the center's employees took callers’ information, they weren't actually enrolling them in an insurance program, but just filling out a form that would then go untouched for weeks.
"I mean that could be my child that might need insurance and I'm thinking I'm going to get an eligibility letter thinking they'll be covered and they're really not when January first comes around,” Jackson said.
"It's like a car failure," said 11 News Political Analyst Bob Stein.
Stein described it as a “cascading implementation failure”.
"When the brakes go and you hit something, then you start breaking down on other things,” Stein said.
And worse yet, Stein said, there was no viable back up plan.
I-Team: “This is the help line, the help line doesn't have any better access than the website.”
Stein: “I mean I think this was all an attempt to tread water."
In addition to these issues, Jackson said there was one other problem at the Houston call center. Many of the operators, who handle sensitive information like social security numbers, were hired without a complete background check.
Jackson said when federal contractor General Dynamics Information Technology finally got around to it, the check uncovered her previous conviction for misdemeanor theft and she was terminated. However Jackson said she was not alone and that other call takers had criminal histories and had access to a caller’s personal information.
A spokesperson for General Dynamics Information Technology deferred comment to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. An agency spokesperson did not address the allegations that operators sat around for weeks or that online access wasn’t any better than the general public. Instead, CMS offered the following statement:
Customer service representatives are hired by and are employees of our contractor, GDIT/Vangent, which also runs 1-800-Medicare. They undergo comprehensive training as well as regular refresher courses to ensure consumers are able to get accurate information and timely assistance on their questions from a qualified team. The call center operation and training regimen follows best private-sector practice and has been informed by our successful track record and experience in operating the popular 1-800-Medicare call center. We take the security of consumers’ personal information seriously and investigate any reports of wrongdoing immediately."