A former employee at an Affordable Care Act processing center in Wentzville, Mo., recalls having so little work to do that she played board games while some co-workers slept.
Lavonne Takatz, 42, worked at the center in Wentzville from October to April.
“We played Pictionary. We played 20 Questions. We played Trivial Pursuit,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Wednesday.
Such allegations have spurred members of Missouri’s congressional delegation to call for investigations of the taxpayer-funded center in Wentzville, one of three nationally that are contracted to process paper applications for the new health-care law.
The federal government, under the auspices of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, gave a five-year, $1.2 billion contract last year to Serco Inc., a processing and security group, to process paper applications for health insurance from the 36 states with federal health insurance exchanges.
Though most sign-ups for insurance under the new marketplace were to be made online, officials at the time estimated that a third of the 20 million people expected to apply would submit paper applications.
Allegations that employees were doing little or no work, first reported by KMOV (Channel 4) on Monday, drew a flurry of responses from Missouri’s delegation Wednesday.
Takatz, who lives in Wentzville, said she originally took the job to help people obtain health care.
“I feel guilty for working there as long as I did,” she said. “It was like I was stealing money from people.”
Takatz said that when she and other employees looked for applications to process, they called it fishing because they were trying to catch an application before someone at another processing center could.
Employees refreshed their pages so frequently that Serco limited them to one refresh per 10 minutes. If workers refreshed more than that, they were called into a supervisor’s office and told to stop.
In the whole month of December, she said, she processed about six applications.
Workers became so bored and hostile, Takatz claims, that Serco began providing books to read. Employees were told they could not speak to the media, even if they left the company.
“It was prison,” Takatz said. “We all referred to it as our cell blocks.”
U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, is writing a letter to Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, “seeking answers to some of the disturbing allegations that have surfaced,” Luetkemeyer’s spokesman Paul Sloca said late Wednesday.
Luetkemeyer, whose district includes Wentzville, “is talking with all relevant (congressional) committees of jurisdiction to discuss whether or not an investigation is warranted,” Sloca added.
In addition, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has co-authored a letter with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, asking Tavenner to respond to a dozen questions about the allegations.
“We are concerned Serco may have much less work than was expected when CMS awarded the contract, and may not be successfully completing the applications it has received,” the letter said.
And Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was “putting together a formal action to get to the bottom of it,” her spokesman, John LaBombard, said Wednesday evening, details of which were still being considered.
Serco, based in Reston, Va., directed media inquiries to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid. A spokesman for that agency said the Wentzville workers process paper applications, verify information, resolve conflicts of information and call consumers to obtain missing information or documents. CMS stated Wednesday that Serco employees were still receiving mail to process and working with customers, but CMS regularly reviews and makes adjustments to the center’s staffing levels.
A CMS spokesman said CMS was committed to ensuring federal funds were spent appropriately and performance expectations were “clear and monitored closely.”
“We are confident that the balance is appropriate,” the spokesman wrote in an email.
Efforts to speak to Serco employees outside the building Wednesday evening were unsuccessful.
Serco won the federal contract in July and selected Wentzville as one of three sites to carry it out. The others are in Arkansas and Kentucky.
A benefits and compensation manager with Serco told the Post-Dispatch in August that St. Louis was picked because of its growth potential and high number of college graduates.
The company moved operations to the old US Fidelis call center in Wentzville that month. In September, thousands of hopefuls showed up for job interviews at the center. Serco hired 790 people at a pay rate between $14 and $27 an hour with health insurance and a 401(k). According to CMS, the center now has 660 employees.
In October, the Arkansas processing center announced it would hire as many as 800 workers.
Serco’s parent company, Serco Group, is under fraud investigation in the United Kingdom for monitoring inactive criminals, according to reports.
Blunt’s letter makes reference to that allegation.
“CMS awarded Serco a contract despite the fact that Serco’s parent company, Serco Group plc, was placed under firm review in July 2013 after a British government audit found the company was charging for services it did not provide,” the letter says. “The probe by Britain’s chief procurement officer should raise more questions about Serco’s effort to implement Obamacare.”
The federal health care law has been controversial since before its passage, and a troubled rollout, caused by crashing computer systems supporting Healthcare.gov, dominated headlines for much of the winter. The White House has focused on more than 8 million sign-ups, citing that as proof the law is working.
These new allegations about the facility in Wentzville are already being viewed through that partisan prism.
In a news release Wednesday, Luetkemeyer said that “the implementation of Obamacare has been an absolute disaster from the very beginning, and I am extremely disturbed by these new allegations.”
But McCaskill’s spokesman said these new allegations should not take away from what the law is intended to do.
“Claire’s a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act, and is encouraged at the good it’s already doing to slow the rise in costs, and make insurance affordable for millions,” LaBombard said in an e-mail. “That said, these allegations are serious — and if true, completely unacceptable.”
Chuck Raasch reported from Washington.