Archive for Monday, October 13, 2008

Medicare hot line takes toll on nerves

1-800-Medicare test calls find problems; service providers defend system

October 13, 2008


Getting answers

From Nov. 15 to the start of the year, the Medicare hot line is swamped as beneficiaries look to enroll into drug plans.

Here are some tips for when you do have questions:

¢ Along with 1-800-Medicare, beneficiaries can call 1-800-860-5260, the hot line for Senior Health Insurance Counseling for Kansas (SHICK).

Janet Ikenberry, program manager for Douglas County Senior Services, said many seniors choose the state hot line over 1-800-Medicare. This hot line uses volunteers to assist in answering questions and clients can meet with counselors in person.

¢ If you do call 1-800-Medicare, make sure you have your Medicare ID card, a pen or pencil and paper on hand. Giving a customer service representative your Medicare ID number will allow them to pull up important information about your plan, which can help them better answer your questions.

¢ Make sure you check out your Medicare handbook before calling. Sent to each beneficiary's home, the handbook gives tips for bypassing the voice response system at the beginning of the call. For example, if you want to talk to a person, just say agent.

¢ To avoid long waits, call during off-peak hours. Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be the busiest days and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is typically the time of day with the most calls. Customer service representatives are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

For the millions of seniors who rely on Medicare as a lifeline, getting through its phone hot line can be a bit of a hang-up.

At least that was the testimony of U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., during a congressional hearing last month.

His office made 500 test calls to 1-800-Medicare and revealed "hourlong waits, disconnected calls, endless loops of referrals and call transfers, and erroneous information about benefits and services."

Those concerns will likely resonate in Lawrence, home to one of the nation's six Medicare call centers.

One of city's largest employers, Vangent, which is in the East Hills Business Park, has more than 600 customer service representatives answering questions coming into the Medicare hot line. It is the third largest Medicare call center in the country.

For $225 million a year, Vangent contracts with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to operate Medicare's hot line call centers.

Disturbing testimony

On Sept. 11, senior advocates from across the country testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging about the continual problems they have with the hot line's service.

"You don't know whether to laugh or cry. They give answers that are clearly wrong and if they don't know an answer they make it up," said Elaine Wong Eakin, a project manager with California Health Advocates.

At the hearing, the nonprofit organization said customer service representatives gave out information that unintentionally locked clients into or out of drug plans. Among the more alarming mistakes was an agent who told a transplant patient that Medicare beneficiaries were not entitled to lifetime coverage of anti-rejection medication.

It took several phone calls and conversations with supervisors before the patient received the life-saving medication.

"They really need to be trained on every question that comes up," Eakin said.

In Wisconsin, seniors were seeing wait times as long as 30 minutes, said John Hendrick, a project attorney with the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups.

And, there was the repeated problem of customer service representatives calling back, but not leaving a return phone number if they got a voice message.

"You have to start all over again and call 1-800-Medicare," Hendrick said. "You are basically starting from scratch."

Those unhappy callers are a small percentage of the traffic, said Eileen Rivera, Vangent's vice president of communications and investors relations.

"Ninety-eight percent of the calls are going very well. CMS is pleased with our performance. If they weren't, we would know about it," Rivera said.

Test calls coming from Smith's office weren't typical in that the callers didn't have Medicare identification numbers and had a half dozen or more questions," Rivera said.

Changes on the way

The hot line is the main outlet of information for Medicare clients wanting to talk to a representative. 1-800-Medicare handles questions ranging from enrolling in drug plans to billing information.

After navigating through menu options and an interactive voice response system, callers reach an agent. Prompted by key words the callers use, representatives read off of scripts.

If the questions are complicated, callers can be transferred to a second tier of customer service representatives.

Before new customer service representatives start taking calls, they undergo 15 days of training, Rivera said. For those who advance from the front lines of calls to more complicated issues, seven and half weeks of training is given.

More training is already under way for customer service representatives, Rivera said. The extra training is to gear up for the annual spike in calls when beneficiaries can enroll in new drug plans. More customer service representatives are also hired during this time, including 132 in Lawrence.

"We are working with CMS to do a better job. Training and improvement is a hallmark for our program. We are constantly training," Rivera said.

Even without the hearings, CMS was working to make improvements, said Mary Laureno, director of CMS' office of beneficiary information services.

Wait times have already gone down, she said. Vangent is contracted with CMS to have average wait times of 8 minutes and 30 seconds. In August, average wait times were 3 minutes and 40 seconds.

CMS is also looking at the scripts used by customer service representatives. The scripts are provided by a different contractor than Vangent.

"We are always looking at ways to improve the program and provide better customer care whether the Senate's committee on aging was doing the investigation or not," Laureno said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly described the amount of training given to an entry-level customer service representative.


KansasPerson 9 years, 2 months ago

tiaera, I believe you when you say that the workers in Lawrence try their best to do this job. I've worked temp jobs at NCS/Pearson/whatever over the years (never this contract though) and I've met a lot of good people there.I think it's definitely a matter of having to work within a system that sucks. I had a friend who worked there and she told me that she would come home and cry most nights -- it was that depressing to have to tell people that they couldn't get coverage a lot of the time.About the article -- I am also pretty sure she told me at the time that they got TWO weeks of training, not seven and a half as the article states.It will be interesting to see if any other people who worked on this contract will comment on this story, and what they will say....

duckie_2028 9 years, 2 months ago

Let me tell yall...I worked for CMS when Vangent was known as NCS Pearson as they were switching over to Vangent. I had to litterly DRAG myself out of bed to go to this depressing job. CMS LIMITS THE HELP we can provide the beneficiary. The biggest issues are with SSA (social security) and the PDP's (prescription drug plans).We were NOT allowed to call either company... We wuld have to put a complaint through the system that eventually gets to the plan for "possible" resolution. You would pull beneficiaries files and see how many times they called about the same issue. I figured out how to dial out while being on a call with the beneficiary and actually used to do 3-ways with both SSA and the PDP's.. Its funny when Medicare physically calls either party how quickly ongoing issues get solved. I read that for CMS had a 7 or 8 week training??? LIE! HUG LIE. TRY 1 WEEK.. and for a Tier 2 rep, it was an additional week and was only eligable if you had been a regular CSR for over 90 days with good attendance. I used to tell beneficiaries the best way to get through the system is to say either "AGENT" or just keep hitting "0" until it said it was going to transfer to an agent.. The job is not an easy job, and there is a whole lot of info that is covered so fast. When a beneficiary asks a question, you are suppose to find the script and read basically verbatum. I have had suicide callers and just in general people who really need help bc they dont understand the system. Thats probably why the job pays over $13 an hour with full insurance benefits.. But boy are you setting yourself up for an awefull position to tell our seniors, "im sorry, i cant help you today, you will have to call social security. Everything goes through them." when al the beneficiary wants to know is how much thier Part B deductable is... and of course CMS Rep knows that. Its if he or she decides they are having a bad day or not...

tyderian 9 years, 2 months ago

I'm a new employee with the company. Hired with Vangent over the summer and going through training now. The trainers are good and I think they work their hardest. However, it is an enormous amount of information and after a week in training, I still could not tell you the different between "Part A" and "Part B". They handed us script shortcuts (hints) to use when we're taking calls (keywords to use when searching for scripts), and we're not even allowed to take the list of keyword shortcuts out on the call floor!Anyway, the article says we go through 7.5 weeks of training. Not true. Our group is only going through 3 weeks of training. I want to stress again how much material we have to learn, and they go through it very fast. Perhaps if they slowed down a bit.Last week they did pair us with some experienced CSR's and we got to "jack in" and listen to some calls. Mostly, the callers were referred to Social Security or other 800 hotlines. Seems like the main task was mostly to read a script and get the caller off of the line.The job does pay well though, and they have good benefits. So I'm hanging on to it for the time being.

tiaera 9 years, 2 months ago

Okay, I can't let this go by without making a comment on behalf of the workers in Lawrence.I've worked for company that runs the contract since 2004. I will point out that I have never worked on the Medicare project, but I've known many people that have. It's impossible not to. Most people in this town know someone who has worked on that contract at one point or another. It's not an easy contract. You are answering calls about a system that for the most part is already failing people (opinion) and you have limited resources to offer your assistance.One of the key parts of this article is overlooked - the medicare contract has five other sites around the country. There is no way to know where those test calls were routed to and how many were Lawrence agents. In my experience, on any contract, Lawrence agents have always been the most hard-working with the most dedication to quality and customer service. While I've never felt I could handle the contract myself, I have nothing but admiration for my coworkers that manage to go in every day and try their best.

Maddy Griffin 9 years, 2 months ago

seven and a half weeks of training???! We got 2 weeks of training at Vangent. And wait times may be down in August, check them again in November.

noname1978 9 years, 2 months ago

I work for Vangent under the Medicare contract, first of all the CSR's get 3 weeks of training not 7 1/2, who's giving out the wrong information now? We also have to read from scripts we do NOT make up an answer for the beneficiary or whoever may be calling on that person's behalf. Our calls are monitored by supervisors and quality specialists, of course not every single call is recorded but if we were giving out the wrong information all the time then I don't think we would have a job to go to everyday. Another thing...when a person calling in asks where we are located we are allowed to tell them we are in Kansas but not give them the town we are located in nor the area where we are located, so thank you for posting it in the newspaper for those people that want to visit our location! You have to understand when you call into Medicare that you are speaking to a General Medicare Tier 1, we are to give GENERAL information that's why they set up different Tiers, therefore transfers are needed. And since Medicare is administered through Social Security Administration, that's why sometimes a caller has to be referred to call the SSA because that's a part of Medicare that SSA handles. Our goal is NOT to get the caller off the line ASAP but provide an answer to the caller's question and if there is not any other questions, move on to the next caller. Like the article says there are long waits at times before you get to a representative, well think about it, 6 call centers and over 40 million Medicare Beneficiary's...forgive us that we can't take all calls at one time, I'm sure there are no wait times when you call other 1-800 numbers other than Medicare, right?

sweetone 9 years, 2 months ago

Ok i had to say it but some of you are right but alot are wrong here, I worked there for 5 years and let me tell you that the scripts are totally out of date. We were giving out wrong infomation, and brought it to the attention of CMS to update these scripts, no matter if it was wrong or not you are told to read the script verbadum then you can say things in your own words. The people who update the scrips are very very slow and they have never been on a phone before. As one of the bloggers said here that she took the initactive to call like the SSA and the Drug Companies and so did i being a Sr Rep i couldnt stand to tell someone that all i can do is file a companint and you will have to wait for resolution, and we were told not to but when you have a person saying they are going to comit suicide if they dont get help well you know what i did what needed to be done and got great results, and my supervisor would say way to go great job. CMS dosent see it that away they would rather you file a complaint and tell the bene that some one will get back to them which never happened. There are great flaws in that system and that is why i am no longer there to take the abuse of management and CMS who clearly dosent care about their employees or the bene's on the phone. Ive never worked for a company that didnt care about their employees before and never will again. I experienced this first hand and was told we dont care about what is going on in your personal life, what we care about is that you are here to work and take the abuse on the phone and trust me i totaly understand why there was so much abuse from our benes on the phone. The system needs to be revamped for sure cause since i left it is even worse and i will always get updates on that place, There is never a happy person there.

ChristineMetz 9 years, 2 months ago

Hi All,I am Christine Metz, the reporter who wrote the story. After reading your comments, I contacted Vangent spokeswoman Eileen Rivera to explain the training discrepancy that many of you pointed out.When citing the seven and half week time frame, Rivera said she was referring to customer service representatives that are trained in four different areas of expertise for the Medicare contract.However, she clarified that those starting out as basic customer service representatives undergo three weeks (or 15 days) of training before beginning. All new customer service representatives would fall under this category.I hope that helps and thank you all for your comments and discussion.Christine MetzSpecial Projects ReporterLawrence Journal-World

toughangel41 9 years, 2 months ago

Ok Sweetone you got me going now and I'm sure when the VANGENT INC. people go through these they will know who we are (like I care) but here it goes. I too worked for NCS Pearson/Vangent Inc. I was there for 4 LONG years. Working there caused me so much anxiety and stress that I had to leave, I know, go ahead, ask... why did I stay there so long? Well here's why and I'm sure you all agree, 1. the pay was great. 2. The health care coverage was so so if you could find a Dentist in this part of Kansas that would take it, the Dental plan would have also been fine. 3. It was a wonderful feeling knowing I was helping the beneficiaries, but after so long it got to be more stressful hearing the complaints from them (although they were just deserved). I felt so heart broken when I had to tell these poor people what we had to say. It WAS ALL verbatim. We said what we were told to say, PERIOD. If we said things in our own words we would get "dinged" which is the word we used for getting "bit*" at by higher ups. I had nothing but great supervisors most of the time. I had problems with a couple there but oh well water under the bridge. I could tell you some stories about a couple but I might run out of space haha. So yes there you go my say about the "GREAT VANGENT INC." I am so glad and lucky to be out of that hell hole finally after so many years but I wish it would have gotten straight while I was there I would have been able to stay. But not any more I guess I wasn't a good enough liar or couldn't handle the heartbreak I would hear daily. But who does that make the better person? I dare ask. I was a Sr. Rep there too also called Help Q. And the amount of training is a big fat huge "LIE" they never gave anyone that much training...ever and they just rushed right through it expecting you to remember it all after so long you would get marked down for something. It was a real joke when I read that they said that many weeks training BULL* How can they get away with those kinds of lies? And I thank God everyday that I no longer have to do it anymore. Sorry Medicare Beneficiaries I tried the best I could but just couldn't do it any longer. Good Luck people that work at VANGENT INC. My prayers are with you all ( to give you the strength and cold heart needed to work there). Sweetone take care talk soon I hope

sweetone 9 years, 1 month ago

Thats fine Christine, but HR knows nothing about the project trust me i found that out in my exit interview when i left there. Three weeks is not enough time to know that amount of information in that short of time. They are put on the floor and totaly scared cause you will always get that question that they didnt go over it happened all of the time!

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