Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Healthcare.gov Quietly Drops Online Chat Customer Service [Updated]

    As consumers race to beat the March 31 Obamacare open enrollment deadline, they will have one less option to get help with the website that has experienced so much trouble over the past five and a half months.  Though it runs counter to the Obama administration's emphasis on   Though it runs counter to the Obama administration's emphasis on technology, typified by the White House's We the Geeks Google+ Hangout Series, Healthcare.gov has eliminated the web chat customer service option.  Sometime around the beginning of March, the online chat feature that has been present since Healthcare.gov was launched disappeared.  Although previous posts on the Healthcare.gov blog still refer to the "live chat" feature, the ubiquitous blue box in the lower right corner of most pages on the site is gone.
    Here is an example of how the "Live Chat" button previously appeared:

    There is even a cached page at Archive.org show the now obsolete chat window.  But the address for the chat window, https://www.healthcare.gov/chat, is now automatically redirected to the Contact Us page.
    That same Contact Us page provides the most obvious evidence of the removal of the chat feature.  A cached version of the page from February 28 appears this way.  The lower left box says that "Online Chat" is a "great way to get quick questions answered. Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."  Note the "live chat" button in the lower right corner as well:

    On the next available cached version of the page, March 5, four boxes have become three.  Online Chat is gone:

    While the dropping of the live chat feature passed without mention, Julie Bataille, Director of Communications for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) alluded to a change in a February 27 post at the Health and Human Services (HHS) Digital Strategy blog, saying that "we will transition 1500 service representatives from web chat to direct telephone assistance where they can help consumers with enrollment 24/7."  Bataille did not indicate that web chat was being abandoned altogether.
    HHS further noted in a blog post on March 11 that with 20 days to go in open enrollment, the agency was making "consumer improvements" and "staffing up."  The improvements included streamlining the account creation process, adding new "help text" for common questions, and adding system capacity to handle the expected increase in volume as the deadline nears.  "Staffing up" consisted of adding 2,000 phone representatives to answer calls at the 24/7 customer service number, and increased training for all representatives.  It is unclear if that 2,000 includes the 1,500 transfers from the now defunct live chat service.
    The removal of live chat is not the first time Healthcare.gov has made undocumented changes to the site:
  • In January 2014, after THE WEEKLY STANDARD identified a security vulnerability on the site, HHS quickly and without notice disabled public access to the "open data" user profiles responsible for the opening.
  • In October 2013, we reported that Healthcare.gov was using copyrighted software code without attribution.  Shortly thereafter, the attribution was added to the code despite HHS's failure to respond to repeated email inquiries about the missing lines.
  • Also in October 2013, we reported the existence of the phrase "no reasonable expectation of privacy" in the source code of the Terms and Conditions of the site, although the words did not appear visible on the screen to users.  Not until Kathleen Sebelius herself was confronted in a Congressional hearing with the issue was the phrase removed two weeks later.
  • In late September 2013, we reported that a reference to "free or low-cost healthcare" was abruptly changed to simply "low-cost."  HHS later described the deletion of "free" as a "routine change."
    HHS has not responded to an email inquiry about the removal of the live chat feature from Healthcare.gov.

UPDATE:  While HHS has not responded to an email inquiry, I found a tweet on the official Twitter account of the Marketplace confirming chat has been dropped.  A customer having trouble getting through on the phone was asking about other options and said, "Calling didn't work last night got disconnected several times. Is there no longer live chat?"  The reply said, "Correct, we transitioned 1,500 chat reps to direct phone assistance where they can help consumers with enrollment 24/7".  Here's the tweet in question:
Unfortunately, no reason is given for the change.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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