Maine Community Health Options has hired a Fort Kent call center to avoid the long waiting times its customers experienced during the 2013-14 health insurance enrollment period, when a deluge of calls prompted top executives and managers to answer customer service calls.

“We consider this a lesson learned. We were expecting 15,000 members, and we got about 40,000,” said Robert Hillman, chief operating officer for Maine Community Health Options, a Lewiston nonprofit cooperative that has captured 83 percent of current enrollees in Maine’s health insurance marketplace, the place where the uninsured can sign up for subsidized benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

About 44,000 Mainers enrolled in the marketplace and purchased benefits for 2014. Enrollment for 2015 is underway and will continue through Feb. 15.

Joining Maine Community and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield as insurers offering plans in the marketplace for 2015 is Harvard Pilgrim.

Hillman said during the 2013-14 enrollment period – even after the healthcare.gov website problems were fixed in late fall – residents who had purchased insurance flooded Maine Community with phone calls. In order to keep up with call volume, all employees – including Hillman and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Lewis – answered the phones and helped customers.

Hillman said some callers had long waits and calls were dropped as Maine Community Health Options, which is operating with $132 million in federal loans, was frequently swamped during the enrollment period.

“It was all hands on deck, and we struggled to answer the calls,” Hillman said.

So despite more than doubling the cooperative’s workforce – from 50 in 2013 to 125 now – Hillman said co-op officials looked to contract with a call center to better serve patients. They found it with Ameridial, an Ohio-based customer service company with an office in Fort Kent.

“They were local, and they had 40 customer service agents ready to help us, and they had experience working in the health industry. It was a perfect fit,” Hillman said of Ameridial.

Since contracting with Ameridial, 98 percent of calls have been answered within 30 seconds since open enrollment started on Saturday, said Hillman.

Ameridial officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on Monday.

Maine Community is also expanding into New Hampshire, another reason to tap Ameridial, Hillman said. He declined to provide financial details of the contract with Ameridial.

Mitchell Stein, a Maine-based health industry analyst, said that Maine Community had the advantage of being a Maine company that people wanted to purchase insurance from, so customers put up with long waiting times to purchase a local product. He said it makes sense to play it safe for 2015 by having an abundance of customer service representatives.

“I think with all the chaos that was happening last year, people were very forgiving,” Stein said. “But if it were to happen again, their patience could run out pretty quickly.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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