The contractor who runs the Affordable Care Act application processing facility in Wentzville paid more than 13,000 hours of overtime to catch up with a backlog created by computer problems after the initial sign-up period, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
From May 1 through Aug. 15 last year, workers in the Wentzville facility logged 13,228.25 hours of overtime to process “backlogged inconsistency work,” according to a report by Serco Inc., the contractor running the facility for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS.
CMS spokesman Aaron Albright said the cost of that overtime was covered under the original contract with Serco at no extra cost to taxpayers.
Serco, a British-based company with U.S. headquarters in Northern Virginia, was awarded a five-year contract, worth up to $1.2 billion, to process applications for the Affordable Care Act. It was paid $114 million for the first year of the contract and $98 million for the current year, with annual renewal options.
The Post-Dispatch filed Freedom of Information Act requests after whistleblower allegations that workers in Wentzville were playing games, reading or purposely working slowly because they had so little to do.
In a Feb. 10, 2015 report sent to CMS, Serco’s Jon P. Lau and Carlo Uchello addressed those allegations. They attributed the slow-downs to computer problems but said they took the allegations of worker loafing seriously and began extensive retraining so workers could do other tasks.
“Serco, at its Wentzville facility, has been accused of allowing staff who are bored to sleep on the job, read books, play games, etc.,” they wrote. “In addition, we have been accused of not providing adequate training and support to our … staff. Both accusations are baseless and untrue.”
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would not allow Serco officials to comment, but CMS spokesman Albright said the company was not denying the reports of what happened.
“To clarify, Serco disagreed with the assertion that the company tolerated employees engaging in activities not relating to their work,” Albright said. “According to Serco, when Serco heard about or observed questionable activities, these issues were addressed.
“Serco has high standards when it comes to rules of behavior and practice in the workplace,” Albright said. “If employees do not meet these performance standards or violate any of these workplace rules, they are appropriately disciplined or terminated. CMS has put in place additional measures to monitor Serco’s performance and worker productivity over the last year.”
‘We Played Pictionary’
Problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, became big news in the winter and spring of 2014.
The Wentzville facility was set up to process paper applications and to help resolve differences in applicants’ documents as they sought coverage under the new law.
Data on Serco’s workload showed how difficult that rollout was.
In October, 2013, workers at the Wentzville facility processed 36,093 documents, according to the data disclosed through the FOIA. A month later, that rose to 233,160, but that was a fraction of the more than 3 million that workers at the facility would eventually process in July and August of last year, according to the data Serco supplied to CMS.
Besides data entry from paper applications for health care coverage, workers at Wentzville and facilities in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arkansas answer telephone queries about enrollment, process appeals and check supporting documents that might raise red flags about an applicant’s citizenship or income or other personal information.
The documents supplied to the Post-Dispatch said that Serco initially hired 700 workers at the Wentzville facility when it opened in late 2013 but that it added a second shift of 750 staffers last fall. Albright said the Wentzville facility currently employs about 1,500.
Lavonne Takatz, who had worked at Wentzville from October 2013 to April 2014, said: “We played Pictionary. We played 20 Questions. We played Trivial Pursuit.”
“I feel guilty for working there as long as I did,” Takatz told the Post-Dispatch last year. “It was like I was stealing money from people.”
Another whistleblower contacted Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., making similar claims.
McCaskill requested that the Department of Health and Human Service’s Officer of Inspector General look into that report. Her request was passed to the Kansas City Regional Office.
John LaBomard, a McCaskill spokesman, said that what Serco “has to say for itself is less important to Claire than what the independent watchdog — the Inspector General — has to say, and we’re continuing to be in contact with the IG’s office to get those answers.”
Mary Kahn, a spokeswoman for HHS’s Inspector General’s office, said that a review of the allegations laid out in McCaskill’s letter is still underway.
Officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services previously attributed the lack of early work at Wentzville to the same computer problems that hampered applicants trying to sign up for Obamacare in late 2013 and early 2014.
Last June, Albright told the Post-Dispatch that “the same tech issues that were widely reported last fall (2013) with healthcare.gov” hampered Serco’s work.
In an August 29, 2014, report to CMS, Serco said it was not until last May, eight months after the application process began, that the system gained the functionality to process inconsistencies.
“The volume of backlogged inconsistency work became large enough that Serco requested, and was granted, authorization to work overtime through the end of September,” the report says.
The Serco report also says retraining of workers was initially hampered by labor standards under the federal Service Contract Act.
Serco told CMS it eventually trained more than 600 data processors in its four locations to handle more complex citizenship, immigration and income inconsistencies. Some 141 were retrained in Wentzville, “which has helped us maintain a higher level of staff utilization than was previously possible,” according to the Serco report.
Serco reported in February, 2015, that when the anticipated number of paper applications were “coming in much lower than expected” for the second year’s enrollment, the company spent two weeks in December retraining workers to meet document-processing demands in other areas. But the volume of documents processed was less than half of the peak-processing months of July and August, according to Serco data.
The report also said Serco “achieved a major milestone” last May when it installed a performance management system monitoring individual worker productivity. That and better computer functionality prompted “a significant increase in production at our Wentzville facility,” Serco told CMS.
The Serco documents supplied to the Post-Dispatch reported that its four facilities had processed more than 20 million documents between October 2013, and the end of 2014.
“We take seriously any issues involving our contractors, work quickly to address them, and hold them accountable,” Albright said. “Over the last year, CMS has put in place additional measures to monitor Serco’s performance and worker productivity, and Serco’s employees have been cross-trained in multiple tasks to gain additional flexibility in workload demand to be as efficient as possible.”