The words came through the earpiece day and night. In a struggling voice, a fearful cadence over the phone line.
This type of call: I took the bus to the pharmacy. I need my insulin right now. There’s a problem with my insurance. Please help me.
This type: The people at “Obamacare” say over and over that it’s fixed. It’s not. Can you get this right for me?
And this type: You all paid everything while my husband was getting cancer treatment. He passed away last week. I just wanted to thank you. Can you tell me if I am paid up for this month?
The tense, troubled calls happened so frequently at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina that they are, well, almost normal. But they are anything but routine.
Hundreds of customer service professionals, or “CSPs,” sit calmly amid the stream of concerns, talking to scores of people every shift.
For a while, I was one of the people on the phones. While working on a novel, I took a “day” job with Blue Cross at the Ivy Creek road building in Durham across the road from my apartment on University Drive.
It was an eye-opening, mentally and emotionally draining job.
And my time there was before the shift to the “Topaz” software, before the new system went haywire for umpteen thousands of North Carolinians. Blue Cross keeps apologizing, but the problems backed up in immense proportion, and they persist.
It’s a cauldron in customer service. I’ve talked to a friend who is there in the trenches. He says he can only just take the next call, whether it’s two hours or two minutes, and brace for criticism from customers.
Hundreds of Durham residents are working on those phones at that Blue Cross building. They bear the burden of talking to customers with elongated, agonizing stories of being wronged, and their health is now in the balance.
The callers aren’t complaining about an unsealed bag of cashews or a cable system gone kaput. They are ill, often seriously, and need a doctor.
I sympathize with the customers up in arms, or head in hands. They paid for insurance. I sympathized so much that my “talk time” to callers was way out of whack. It was hard to hang up sometimes.
I empathize with the CSPs, of course. Stress levels skyrocket.
Who’s to blame? The mismanagement, misguided planning, misjudgment of customer volume by Blue Cross.
I do know the insurance carrier tested Topaz extensively; that was happening when I was there. I also know Blue Cross trains CSP’s exhaustively; my group was in a classroom for two months.
Thankfully, the N&O’s John Murawski continues to report. He tells us about real pain, caused by extraordinary demand and a technology change that, essentially, crashed under the weight.
Every time a major computer system is replaced, there are problems foreseen. No one anticipated this crescendo of errors.
No one person in Blue Cross management is responsible. I was impressed with the skills and sensitivities of the top officials I periodically encountered. But I can’t see why some people at or near the top wouldn’t be let go when this is over. If it’s ever over.
Blue Cross attaches some of the crisis to the health care marketplace. The “exchange,” when it comes to accuracy, follow-up and speed, is indeed sorely wanting. I saw it every day.
I also spoke with policyholders who dropped the ball. Three words of wisdom: “read your mail.”
Health care reform is just too popular and can’t handle the capacity. No one forced the company to take part in the marketplace. This breakdown falls on the shoulders of the people in charge.
It’s going to take years for the carrier to dig out and rebuild its reputation. Meantime, it’s a pressure cooker without a good release valve.
After less than a year, I resigned from Blue Cross to take some new writing opportunities. Said goodbye to row after row of kind, sharp, dedicated people still laboring to solve your problems. The beeping phone rarely rests.
They are people just like you. Doing their jobs the best they can. In a storm not of their making.