Long call wait times, dropped calls and error-riddled web pages have plagued Tricare's first few days under its new regional contractors, officials and users say.
Starting Jan. 1, Tricare shifted from three regions to two -- Tricare East and West -- and ushered in new managing contractors for all users except those in the area previously called Tricare South.
At the same time, officials combined Tricare Standard and Extra into a new plan known as Tricare Select and launched a new payment structure for many users.
"We are currently experiencing unusually high volumes of beneficiary inquiries to the Tricare call centers and regional websites," Tricare officials posted on the system's Facebook page late Wednesday. "We apologize for the unusual delays and are working to serve you more quickly. Consider logging on to the contractor's self-service portals at www.TRICARE-West.com and www.TRICARE-East.com to access your account information."
The call centers have been receiving more than 80,000 calls per day, a Tricare spokesman said Thursday. The centers are also having staffing problems due to severe winter weather on the East Coast, he said.
"The goal is for calls to be answered within 30 seconds, and there has been noticeable improvements in the last three days, and expected to improve even more in the coming days," a Tricare spokesman who did not wish to be identified told Military.com.
A test of the websites and call centers of both the new Tricare West contractor, Health Net, and the Tricare East contractor, Humana, by two Military.com employees using their personal Tricare credentials showed the systems were still experiencing problems Thursday.
Both contractors had recorded messages on their phone lines Thursday warning callers of long wait times. A Military.com test, however, resulted in a less-than-10-minute wait for both systems.
But the contractors' websites both presented errors during the test.
Humana's Tricare East website required several attempts before allowing a new registration and log-in. And although this Military.com reporter was able to use the Health Net website after a single attempt with a DS Logon, the website would not allow her to complete a page requesting her contact information be updated, and all other pages visited on the site resulted in errors.
Officials with both Humana and Health Net said they are working to resolve the issues.
"Due to the transition of contractors, normal post-holiday surge of calls and the East Coast winter storm, we are experiencing high call volume and website visits," Molly Tuttle, a Health Net spokeswoman, said in a statement. "We are working around the clock to resolve any issues and bring more tools online to maintain access to high-quality health care for Tricare beneficiaries and providers."
Humana spokesman Robert Bertrand wrote, "As a result of the contract transition, Humana Military's customer care centers experienced a high volume of calls. Despite our best preparations stress-testing the systems for high volumes, some wait times were longer than anticipated. However, we made continual adjustments to our processes in order to return to our normal, expedient rate of response.
"As a result, we have a seen a steady decrease in wait times, and we're still monitoring every step of our processes to pinpoint where even the slightest improvements can be made," he continued. "We're also continuously testing our website and acting on feedback from beneficiaries to make the user experience faster and simpler."
Many Tricare users took to the system's Facebook page to complain.
"I would LOVE to wade my way through the website rather than wading through the phone prompts and getting disconnected after a 35 minute hold. However, the new Tricare site doesn't recognize my [Social Security number]," wrote one commenter. "Pretty scary and totally unusable."
"I can't view or get eligibility and verify, plus I cannot submit claims because it says I'm not registered after I've spent weeks registering," another wrote. "I've done everything they said a month ago. I've been on 4 calls, on hold up to 3 hours 45 minutes and no one knows what the problem is. I've never been more frustrated."
Tricare's official website also was experiencing problems. Links detailing the Jan. 1 changes posted by Tricare officials to their Facebook page as recently as Dec. 28 were resulting in "page not found" 404 errors at the time of this writing.
On early Jan. 2, Tricare reported via its Facebook page that its primary 800 number, 1-800-Tricare, was not working properly. That problem, however, was resolved that day, officials said.
Military family advocates said they worry that these problems are just the beginning.
"We are disappointed with the customer service issues and fear those venting on Facebook represent only the tip of the iceberg," said Karen Ruedisueli, a deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. "Are these just typical transition glitches or signs of a bigger problem? It's too early to tell, but we hope the Defense Health Agencies and the contractors pull out all the stops to resolve them quickly."
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at email@example.com.