The Massachusetts Health Connector took a “bad stumble” as it transitioned to a new call center vendor this week but has since diagnosed and addressed the problem that created access hurdles for members, the agency’s director said Thursday.

“We are back. We have commenced inbound operations. Calls are coming into agents,” executive director Louis Gutierrez told the Connector board. “We have a long queue of callbacks that we intend to make, because it was both a three-day weekend and a day and a half of disruption, but that’s what we’re about. We’re going to be about the business of being fully stable for open enrollment and moving forward.”

With the goal of improving its customer service, the Connector Board in June approved an agreement with the vendor Accenture for call center planning and design work over the summer. Last Friday evening, on Oct. 8, the Connector began the transition and data migration from its prior call center vendor, with agents scheduled to receive incoming calls as of 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

But early Tuesday, Gutierrez said, the Connector “began experiencing trouble accepting inbound member calls,” for reasons that were then unknown, and the problems remained into Wednesday morning. On Tuesday, the Connector posted a customer service alert advising that its call center was “experiencing technical issues impacting agents’ ability to answer calls at this time” and that a tech team was “working quickly to resolve the issues.”

Gutierrez said Accenture worked with its vendor partners, Amazon Web Services and Salesforce, throughout Tuesday night and identified “a root cause and resolution” by noon Wednesday.

The stumble comes a year after the Connector was embroiled in a full-blown customer service crisis with another vendor, a situation that led the state authority to engage with Accenture on remedies.

Figures presented Thursday show more than 260,000 people are enrolled in qualified health plans through the Connector, which serves as a clearinghouse available to people in Massachusetts to shop for health insurance if they do not receive it through an employer or otherwise need coverage.

The cause of the latest issues, Gutierrez said, had not been discovered in multiple rounds of high-volume testing and was related to “very complex interactions between certain calling features, the interactive voice response system and usage volumes.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, inbound call center operations were stable and agents were receiving calls, Gutierrez said.

Board member Nancy Turnbull asked if there had been specific tests that should have been done but weren’t, or if what transpired “was such an odd confluence of these different factors that it was very bad luck.”

“As executive director and a former CIO, it’s never reasonable to experience an opening day like this,” Gutierrez replied. “It was a very complex interplay of systems, and so I guess what I would say is, in retrospect, now that we know what the problem was, we should have tested that aspect of the connection between AWS and Salesforce. I wouldn’t have known and it wasn’t omitted for any reason other than lack of knowledge of that interaction, so in that sense it’s certainly an error that I own on behalf of the organization, but it was very non-obvious.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who chairs the Connector board, said that she had been informed of “several rounds of successful high-volume testing” and that there had been “nothing to lead one to assume that that was a vulnerability in this systems interface.”

“All of us regret any negative interaction for our customers and their inability for a period of time to call but it appears where I sit that this has been rapidly addressed by the Connector team and Accenture at high leadership levels,” she said.

Gutierrez said he has “gained a deep new appreciation for configuration settings in Amazon Web Services as they relate to call volumes going into Salesforce,” and that he does not expect a similar defect to happen again. The Connector “very carefully and closely” monitors call center performance in real time, he said.

The call center hiccup came ahead of the Nov. 1 start of the Connector’s open enrollment period for 2022 plans, and Connector staff said they will work with Accenture in the lead-up to that date to monitor areas like agent performance, workforce management and customer satisfaction.

Open enrollment, during which members and new applicants can enroll or change their plans for any reason, will run through January 23.

The Connector is planning to hold extended evening and weekend call center hours on what it describes as “peak days” near deadlines in December and January — Dec. 18, 22 and 23, and Jan. 20-23.

(Copyright (c) 2021 State House News Service.

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