COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's Medicaid agency is ramping up its call center in expectation of a surge of questions about the federal health care law.
Deputy Director John Supra said the agency began increasing its hours July 1 and the agency is hiring in preparation of a full ramp-up in October, when people can begin buying health insurance through online marketplaces called exchanges.
The call center for Medicaid beneficiaries will be able to handle 50 percent more calls, Supra said.
On average, operators took 21,140 calls monthly over the last year. Last month, they handled 20,910, according to the agency.
The health care overhaul passed by Congress in March 2010 mandates that, starting next year, most U.S. citizens and legal residents obtain coverage or pay a penalty. Benefits exchanges will debut in October, enabling residents to go online to compare 2014 coverage terms and prices and then use subsidies, if they qualify, to buy a policy.
South Carolina is not running an exchange, leaving that responsibility to the federal government. And unlike other states, it's also not marketing the health care law.
But officials want to answer residents' questions that are sure to come.
"We expect people to have questions about what they're eligible for and what it means for them," Supra said.
The Department of Health and Human Services expects to spend an additional $250,000 this fiscal year on the call center. It spent about $1 million last year, with expenses including set-up costs.
Staffing depends on the time of day, but on average, 20 employees are currently answering calls. That will increase to 25, with a capacity of 30, depending on how many additional people sign up for Medicaid, Supra said.
Gov. Nikki Haley has remained staunchly opposed to the federal health care law.
It calls for expanding Medicaid eligibility to people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $15,400 for an individual, including — for the first time — childless adults. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law made the expansion an option, not a mandate. Haley and Republicans who control the Legislature have refused. They defeated Democrats' repeated attempts this year to insert the expansion in the 2013-14 state budget.
However, even without the expansion, the state expects the law to prompt 170,000 already-eligible residents to enroll over the next 2 ½ years rather than face penalties.
"The expansion of the call center will support that group as well as others who will have questions," Supra said.
The agency moved the call center into the United Way building in Columbia last July, allowing the agency to use the same infrastructure that operates the nonprofit's 2-1-1 24/7 non-emergency referral hotline for services such as food banks, rental assistance and child care. Supra said the move allows for call transfers, providing better service to beneficiaries who often need assistance on multiple fronts.