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Faced with many more calls to its toll-free hotline than expected, the Washington Health Benefit Exchange plans to dramatically scale up resources for its customer-service center in Spokane.

Calls have been pouring in to the call center from residents around the state seeking to enroll in coverage through the online insurance marketplace, called Washington Healthplanfinder, which opened Oct. 1.

Exchange staff had expected about 2,500 calls a day to the call center, but the actual number has been, on average, about 6,000.

Some days, there have been as many as 10,000 calls, said Beth Walter, operations director at the exchange.

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Walter’s report on call-center activities came during the exchange board’s monthly meeting Wednesday in SeaTac. Exchange staff discussed with board members problems with some aspects of Healthplanfinder, including a backlog of insurance brokers and agents who have gone through training to enroll consumers in health plans through the exchange but have not yet gained authorization to access the exchange website.

There isn’t a similar backlog among the “in-person assisters” from community organizations who have gone through similar training, exchange staff said. But some board members said they had heard reports from hospitals that staff members who went through training to help consumers enroll are still waiting for a username and password that will enable them to do so.

Overall, there has been extremely high interest in Healthplanfinder, officials said.

In response to the high call volume, the exchange plans to double the number of customer-service representatives working at the call center over the next two months, beginning with an additional 20 workers starting next week, 50 more to come in November, and 75 others in December.

The goal is to significantly reduce the wait times that many callers have had to endure before they get through to a customer-service representative.

The average wait has been running about 25 minutes, according to exchange staff members, who explained their plan to address the problem.

The goal is to get the average time down to 30 seconds, Walter said.

“We have a ways to go, but that’s our goal.”

The exchange opened its toll-free hotline at 855-WAFINDER (or 1-855-923-4633) Sept. 3 with 80 customer-service representatives at the Spokane call center and an additional 60 overflow staff at a call center in Virginia to handle periods of increased demand.

Those workers have been working flat-out for several weeks now — to the point where some, including Walter, are raising concerns about the potential for burnout.

In addition to the higher call volume, the average length of the calls has been longer than expected.

Where the staff had expected most calls would last about 15 minutes, the average call is lasting about 25 to 30 minutes.

Some calls take much longer. Walter said she recently received an email from a caller who had spent more than two hours on the phone with a customer-service representative.

“We certainly didn’t project phone calls that would be over two hours,” she said.

But some people “have some pretty significant questions or have experienced significant problems” with the website that require more time to sort out, she noted.

The call center is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays. But workers have been coming in at 6 a.m., sometimes staying until 10 p.m., and coming in on weekends, Walter said.

In addition to the phone calls, they are handling a high volume of emails — about 500 every week.

They are also entering paper applications into Healthplanfinder.

More than 7,000 paper applications have been received, Walter said. As of Monday, more than 2,400 of those applications had been processed, leaving a significant backlog.

Washington state has reported some of the strongest enrollment figures to date of any of the states that are running their own exchanges.

According to the latest figures, more than 35,000 Washington residents have completed enrollment in health plans or Medicaid through the exchange.

An additional 56,000 have completed applications that are only waiting for the first premium payment, which is due in December. An additional 14,000 people have completed applications for Medicaid through the exchange.

Insurance brokers who spoke during the public comment period of the board meeting said they are eager to reach more consumers who want to enroll in coverage through the exchange.

So far, about 2,000 agents and brokers in Washington have gone through training. Of those, more than 700 have received usernames and passwords. But many others are still waiting.

Separately, more than 1,000 people have gone through training to be in-person assisters who can also help people enroll in coverage. Of those, about 750 have received usernames and passwords, exchange staff said.

Amy Snow Landa is a freelance writer in Seattle. This report was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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