The county is competing with Sacramento and Contra Costa counties to house one of three call centers will handle applications for health insurance starting in October.
Only one call center will be a county-state partnership, and the California Health Benefit Exchange will independently run the other two.
Federal law stipulates that health insurance is mandatory for all Americans starting Jan. 1, 2014, and the call centers are meant to help Californians who need to purchase health care insurance through the newly formed California Health Benefit Exchange. The exchange will make several types of insurance available to state residents who are uninsured or may qualify for a cheaper plan.
The county formally expressed interest in housing the call center in a letter sent Oct. 30, and the board of supervisors voted unanimously Dec. 4 to submit the plan to the health benefit exchange.
“The county is trying to be proactive,” said Kristie Santos, assistant director of Stanislaus County’s Community Services Agency. “The (health benefit exchange) is setting tight deadlines.”
Santos estimated that the county would need 250 to 300 new employees to man the call center. The county is searching for office space to accommodate them, she said.
The estimated startup and operating costs from Feb. 1, 2013, to June 30, 2016, are expected to be near $65 million, according to a county staff report dated Dec. 4.
The bulk of the call center employees — all considered employees of Stanislaus County, according to the proposal — would be hired as full-time and part-time family service specialists. More than 70 percent are expected to work full time.
That same designation is given to members of the Community Services Agency staff who help residents with public assistance programs, such as food stamps and Medi-Cal.
A family service specialist starts out making $15.44 an hour and can eventually earn $18.76 an hour. Applicants must pass full background checks and a drug screening during the hiring process, Santos said.
The proposal received tepid support from Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, whose district includes the West Side.
“The county staff has rushed this through,” DeMartini said. “It just seems like it was not very well thought out.”
He criticized the county staff for pushing to add nearly 300 public sector jobs rather than making the county more accommodating to private businesses. He was also displeased that office space had not been identified for the center.
DeMartini was the lone dissenter in an Oct. 30 vote to research preparing a proposal, but he voted in favor of submitting the proposal Dec. 4. He said he did so because his initial dissension made no difference to the board’s actions.
The California Health Benefit Exchange began inquiring about a county-state partnership to run a call center on Aug. 30 and formally requested offers from counties Oct. 29.
According to Santos, Stanislaus County has several natural advantages.
Real estate can be rented cheaply, she said, and labor costs are lower than in Sacramento and Contra Costa counties, because the cost of living is less.
Santos also said county employees know what it takes to put together a call center. The county installed one of its own during a four-month span in 2012, she said.
That center, run by 90 Community Services Agency staff members, handled about 30,000 public assistance-related calls in July.
“We’re going after the jobs, and we’re interested in partnering with the state,” Santos said.
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