WASHINGTON • Company and government supervisors knew that employees at the tax-funded Affordable Care Act processing center in Wentzville were being paid to do little or no work, former employees said Thursday.
And the Missouri facility wasn’t the only one.
One worker at the London, Ky., Serco facility told the Post-Dispatch on Thursday that he rarely has any health insurance applications to process.
“I walk out every day feeling as if I have contributed nothing,” said the Kentucky employee, who declined to have his name used for fear of retribution.
The federal government, under the auspices of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, last year gave a five-year, $1.2 billion contract to Serco Inc., a processing and security group, to process paper applications for health insurance.
Now, employees are claiming there are not enough applications to generate work for them.
The Post-Dispatch on Wednesday reported that a former worker, Lavonne Takatz, said Wentzville workers played Pictionary and 20 Questions because they had so little work. Others slept, she said.
Employees were not allowed to have access to the Internet or cellphones, Takatz said.
Jaison Fleming, 33, of Florissant, worked at the center through February. He said workers were not even allowed to have pens and paper, but supervisors started providing them to entertain the employees.
Both Fleming and Takatz said Serco eventually started supplying books for recreational reading, and then allowed employees to bring their own.
Both former employees told the Post-Dispatch that CMS officials became aware of the books, and they were no longer allowed.
CMS did not respond to questions about how much they knew about a possible lack of productivity.
The worker in Kentucky said he experienced a similar environment to Wentzville.
“When the highlight of employees’ days are playing Pictionary in the training room ... and you get paid decent money to go to work to talk to your friends, something is wrong,” he wrote in an email to the Post-Dispatch.
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.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Thursday that his office has heard of more possible cases of employees hired to process applications for the Affordable Care Act doing little work.
“I have heard that there have been allegations from other facilities, and we are looking into that,” he said.
Concurrently, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called for a federal Inspector General’s investigation, saying she has “received allegations of wrongdoing” from a whistleblower from the Wentzville plant.
Her letter to Daniel R. Levinson, Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says the whistleblower worked for Cognosante, a subcontractor of Serco, in Wentzville. According to McCaskill, the worker claims that she was called into work last fall “when the company was aware that its employees would not be able to work due to problems with the HealthCare.gov Web site.”
McCaskill’s letter says that the whistleblower alleges that employees were told to sit at their desks and “pretend to work” when officials from the federal CMS were on-site.
The fresh calls for investigations came as the White House referred all questions to CMS, which confirmed the letters are being reviewed.
In an emailed statement, a Serco spokesman said the company’s workforce “has processed more than 1 million documents and made 1.4 million outbound phone calls to applicants” from Oct. 1 through April 30.
“As in any business or major program there are peaks and valleys as the various tasks stop and start,” wrote Alan Hill, Serco senior vice president of corporate communications and government relations.
The allegations from the facility at Wentzville come just as controversy over the Obama administration’s mistake-riddled rollout of computer sign-ups for the Affordable Care Act had faded.
A letter similar to McCaskill’s, signed by all of Missouri’s six Republican members of the U.S. House, was sent Thursday to Marilyn Tavenner, the CMS administrator.
“We wonder whether or not there was any sort of concern voiced by CMS staff or any question of legitimacy stemming from that visit that may have made its way to CMS headquarters,” the letter states. It was signed by Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer, Ann Wagner, Vicky Hartzler, Jason T. Smith, Billy Long and Sam Graves.
Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said Thursday he was not asked to sign the letter, but through a spokesman he said that “any time tax dollars have been misspent, or misused, I support a full investigation and a complete recovery of the funds.”
According to CMS, the contract was awarded through a full and open competition that followed the Federal Acquisition Regulations “to ensure the selection process was fair and transparent, and to ensure the selection of the most qualified organization.”
The tasks outlined in the contract include intake, routing, review and troubleshooting of applications, according to John Lau, the Serco program director for the CMS contract.
Lau, in testimony in September before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, outlined some of the tasks in the contract, such as sorting and categorizing mail; processing paper applications; verifying eligibility under state-specific requirements; addressing complex issues; telephone support; code development; test support; and more.
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. But as of December, CMS figures show only 17 percent of applications were made on paper, according to a release by Blunt.
Lau, in his testimony, said Serco was being paid more than $114 million for the base year tasks, but that would need to be increased to $1.2 billion for additional tasks.
Those tasks included an increase in appeals requests and a growing staff. In addition, the testimony states that CMS requested translation and interpreter services in August, as well as background checks on employees.
Allegations that employees in Wentzville were doing little or no work were first reported by KMOV (Channel 4) on Monday.
Former employees told the Post-Dispatch that boredom and staring at screens led to hostility. What followed was gossip, harassment and fights.
Monica Colvin, of O’Fallon, Mo., who worked at the center through January, said she had been physically pushed by co-workers, and at one point, had her computer unplugged behind her back.
“There were a lot of pretenses of things going on in there,” she said. “Basically tattletaling and making up stories … on individuals to get them fired.”
Some said the job led them to visit a doctor for stress.
Colvin, 54, said she went to her doctor when she started experiencing anxiety and depression.
“When I got there, my blood pressure was almost at the stroke point.”
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.”
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.
Blunt, noting that a Canadian company received the computer contract to run the Affordable Care Act website, raised questions about why a British company whose parent company, Serco Group, is reportedly under a fraud investigation in the United Kingdom for monitoring inactive criminals, was chosen to do the health law’s paperwork.
He and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., have sent a letter to the head of the CMS asking for answers. Luetkemeyer has also said he would approach congressional committee chairs to probe the allegations.
“Right now on this issue we have a lot more questions than we have answers,” Blunt said. “And they are questions that need to be asked and questions that need to be answered.”
This report was prepared in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.