CONCORD -- Ylan Nicole is a popular customer at her nail salon.
After patrons found out she had been hired as a call agent assigned to help Californians get health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, her manis and pedis turned into informal seminars on how to sign up and what to expect to pay for premiums.
On Thursday afternoon, Nicole and her colleagues at the Concord call center shared with this newspaper how they are prepared for an influx of 4,000 calls a day starting Tuesday, the day enrollment in "Obamacare" begins.
"It's very exciting. I'm a humanitarian by nature," the 31-year-old El Sobrante resident said at her cubicle in the cavernous 37,000-square-foot Bates Avenue call center, formerly a Comcast phone bank. "I'm on the front lines helping people with their challenges; it's an awesome privilege."
After a difficult start that involved some hiring confusion and disgruntled new hires, the center has been fielding questions from the public after an Aug. 26 "soft opening." What started as 500 calls a day has grown to 1,500, handled by the 135 service agents and 20 supervisors. While the Concord and Rancho Cordova call centers are staffed and operational, the Fresno center is expected to receive its first call Nov. 18.
"The momentum is building, the interest is there, the word is getting out," said Angie Blanchette, a spokeswoman for Covered California, the agency running the state's new health insurance exchange. "Health care is a right; it's not a privilege. And we're anxiously awaiting Oct. 1 so we can begin enrolling people."
About 4 million people are eligible for Obamacare in California; some 400,000 of them live in Bay Area, according to Covered California.
Calls so far generally have covered the basics of the new health care plan, which can confuse residents with its historic changes.
"We get a lot of calls of people trying to figure out what is going on, what they need to do, how much health care will cost for them," said Kevin Kelly, a 28-year-old service agent from Moraga. "One of the big selling points of this job is I really wanted to help people, and I thought this was a great way to help people in a meaningful way."
The call centers are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. Agents are equipped to answer calls in 13 languages, and translators are available for other dialects. Service agents will also be able to gauge whether callers are eligible for Medi-Cal.
Nicole shared a story about an elderly caller who was close to selling her home to pay her medical bills. She had only avoided bankruptcy after collecting life insurance payments from her mother-in-law's death, but she could not afford to pay for her health care. She was excluded from health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. Under Obamacare, she learned, she would be eligible for such coverage for the first time.
"She was so excited," Nicole said.
The Concord call center started awkwardly, as some of those hired believed they were applying for full-time jobs but soon found they were "permanent intermittent," meaning no guaranteed hours. By Jan. 1, when the new Obamacare insurance policies go into effect, all three call centers expect to have hired 1,000 employees, Blanchette said.
The political hot potato of Obamacare is not lost on the call takers, who periodically answer angry calls.
"We are getting some people wanting to state their opinion about how they feel about Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act," said Angela Bullock-Hayes, the Concord call center site director. "But we try and stick to our job of informing people and stay clear of those calls."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
Go to www.coveredca.com or call 888-975-1142
Call center is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, starting Tuesday
What to have ready when you apply: