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Marabel Alfaro, Human Services supervisor for processing team #6 working at the call center on Wilson Road. The department has hired a bunch of new people to prepare for the transition off Healthy Families and for health care reform in 2014.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Valerie Valdez, Human Services supervisor controller at work in the call center on Wilson Road.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Kern County Human Services workers Mario Pompa, and Rebekah Scroggins are both Human Services Technicians.

Just like people and agencies across the state, a Kern County call center tucked away in a former grocery store is riding the changes of health care reform.

In January, the Customer Assistance Telacenter's call agents handled thousands of inquiries from Kern County folks with questions about their state Medi-Cal insurance and CalFresh food benefits.

Next they also could be fielding calls transferred from Covered California, the state's new health insurance exchange.

It's just one of the ways the call center's work will be impacted by health care reform and other changes.

Tommie Jones, the Kern County Department of Human Services program director, said its employees are also getting questions from people about the transition of children into Medi-Cal from Healthy Families.

Healthy Families is a government-subsidized health insurance program for families who make too much to qualify for Medi-Cal but not enough to buy private insurance.

The call center's 50 agents take queries about ongoing CalFresh and Medi-Cal cases. Kern County has about 58,000 CalFresh cases, which represent more than 140,000 people, according to the Human Services Department.

The county also has about 63,000 Medi-Cal cases, which represent nearly 144,850 people. Human Services estimates Kern will accrue about 34,400 new Medi-Cal cases with the expansion of the program next year.

Starting in January 2014, people younger than 65 who make less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level -- $30,675 annually for a family of four, according to the American Public Health Association -- will be eligible for Medi-Cal.

In January, Pam Holiwell, assistant director for Human Services' Employment and Financial Services Bureau, said the department has been gearing up and getting staffing levels up in preparation for health care reform and the Healthy Families transition.

"We've been aggressively hiring probably since the last year or so," she said.

In February, standing outside one of the training rooms where those new hirers are prepped, Holiwell said they are ready to take on whatever the changes in health care come their way.

The call center, a former Vons, also houses the "processing" teams that handle the ongoing management of CalFresh and Medi-Cal cases.

Cubicles are short and topped with glass panels so supervisors can easily see employees. The call center's agents sit in groups in a large, windowless room along with some of those processing teams.

A nearby room is empty of employees, but filled with desks and cubicles waiting to be filled.

With the coming of health care reform, Holiwell said, the department knew it would need to expand.

"Even though we didn't have the number of staff that we needed at that time, we knew we wanted to go ahead and build it out, have the furniture, have the infrastructure, the telephones and the computers," she said.

"Should the whole building need to be a call center, we could do that."

In January, the center took in more than 89,000 calls and call agents handled 28,000 of those inquiries. Holiwell and Jones said the agents aim to answer 80 percent of the calls in 60 seconds.

Jones said one of the good things about all the changes under way at the state level is that they are happening gradually, that the Healthy Families transition is coming into play before the exchange launches.

"If they were going to inundate us all at one time (with all the new regulations)...that would kill us," she said.

Aside from the anticipated increase in the county's Medi-Cal cases, the call center may be taking on some calls from the health benefit exchange before too long.

An estimated 2.6 million people will be eligible for subsides to purchase health benefits via Covered California, including about 250,000 residents in the San Joaquin Valley, according the exchange's annual report.

The exchange is piecing together three service centers that will start taking calls about the program this fall.

"That's where the calls will be handled if (Californians) do not want to complete the application online," said Dana Howard, spokesman for Covered California.

Exactly what kind of calls the service centers might transfer to county call centers like one is Kern is still up in the air.

"We do not have a definitive answer on the specific timeline and coordination activities to prepare counties for taking Covered CA calls," Howard wrote in an email.

"We do anticipate our Service Center training to begin in May 2013 and plan to begin our coordination with the Department of Health Care Services soon after."

Regardless of what kinds of calls could be transferred to counties, Howard said it is critical that calls to Covered California go well.

"The idea is that we have the smooth transaction with the public and those seeking to be enrolled, especially so they don't lose confidence in the process and in the program," Howard said.

While much fine-tuning remains to be done, Holiwell said the call center will be ready to take on its new responsibilities as they are announced.

"We're ready to begin planning and implementing just as soon as those decisions are made," she said.

"We've been aggressively hiring probably since the last year or so."

-- Pam Holiwell, assistant director for Human Services' Employment and Financial Services Bureau