If insurance exchange shoppers thought their trials would necessarily end once they were—finally—able to log on and do the hard work of selecting and purchasing a plan, they were mistaken. A more recent problem: new insurance enrollees unable to confirm that they’re actually covered as they wait and wait for an invoice from their carrier, or an insurance card, or, even, timely assistance from customer service. In the past couple weeks, WNYC, the Fort Myers (FL) News-Press, and the Philadelphia Inquirer have reported on customer frustrations with local Blue Cross Blue Shield carriers (the major carriers in these places), only to encounter their own frustrations in the form of less-than-forthcoming officials. All three news outlets were able to bring human faces to the problem—thanks in part to social media—if not always official numbers or even full explanations. Let’s take a closer look at the three efforts and what reporters can learn about covering this ongoing story.
In a January 14 piece, WNYC’s Fred Mogul told the story of a Long Island man who enrolled in an Empire Blue Cross plan and then “kept waiting and waiting and waiting” for his insurance card, apparently going without medical attention for a “severe stomach bug” as he waited. Wrote Mogul:
People have been complaining for months on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere about New York’s state insurance exchange. The problems have been similar to those nationwide: crashing web pages, long wait times on phone lines, customer service representatives who promise to help and then don’t deliver.
Mogul did try to learn why the state’s biggest insurer couldn’t process applications in a timely way, but ran into a PR roadblock from Empire Blue. A spokeswoman spoke, but didn’t really say much. Empire also told Mogul that it was adding phone operators and sending letters to customers telling them they’d get the paperwork as soon as possible, whatever that meant. Mogul didn’t get much more from exchange executive director Donna Frescatore, who doesn’t say much to the media anyway and manages her words carefully. She told Mogul, rather vaguely: “I don’t have a ballpark number [of people affected by Empire’s back-end enrollment issues] but I certainly think it’s enough. We’ve heard it enough times to know that it needs immediate action.” She acknowledged the problems go back to at least November. Why didn’t she require the company to fix them? And if the exchange doesn’t know how many people have been affected, then who does? This is hardly helpful to journalists trying to write a fair story.
On January 24, the Inquirer wrote about Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield in New Jersey “dealing with a wave of disgruntled customers, who are complaining on social media of long waits for service and an inability to confirm coverage.” On Horizon’s Facebook page, the Inquirer found one customer who “groused that she spent 36 hours on the phone trying to resolve enrollment issues that ‘were entirely your [Horizon’s] fault.’” The rest of the piece, however, is lent to the insurance carriers, who assure readers that the backlog is “improving,” and that it stems from the Fed’s decision to shorten the enrollment deadlines. Horizon says it tripled customer service staffing and delayed the payment due date for a month, while Independence posted an apology to members experiencing delays (though the paper doesn’t say where). Independence Blue’s Brian Lobley, a senior vice president for marketing and consumer business, got ten (albeit short) paragraphs to explain away the problems, including how the carrier was “taken by surprise” at the length of the customer service phone calls. “We have folks who are new to insurance, and they are not four-to-five minute calls,” he said. No kidding. Buying insurance is a complicated business. Not addressed in the piece: What’s the scope of the problem in people terms— as in, how many people have complained? What has the state insurance regulator said or done?