American flag. Photo credit: Brandi Korte via Photopin (cc)
Photo credit: Brandi Korte (cc)

Tuesday, October 1st is the first day of work for thousands of new contact center agents in the U.S., in charge of fielding questions from confused Americans about Obamacare.

The short version: If you currently have health insurance, you don’t have to do anything. If you don’t have health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, you have until March to sign up for health coverage, or face penalties on your next tax bill.

Two million people tried to sign up for New York’s public health exchange in the first two hours of the website’s launch, crashing the servers. Intermittent reports from across Twitter suggest many people are experiencing similar problems signing up.

That means the 7,000+ federal contact center agents (and thousands more contact center agents supporting 16 individual state health exchanges) are facing a busy week manning phones and answering questions via web chats.

Health insurance providers, too, have been on a hiring spree to ensure they have adequate staff available to answer the expected high volume of queries. One 37,000-square-foot contact center in Northern California staffed by 135 agents and 20 supervisors is expecting to get 4,000 calls a day. Around seven million people are expected to use the exchanges to purchase coverage in the next year, according to Time magazine, while 22 million are forecast to sign up by 2016.

One contact center operator is benefiting in particular. Alexandria, Va.-based Vangent Inc., a division of federal contractor General Dynamics, has been awarded a $530 million one-year contract to set up call centers in 34 states on behalf of the federal government. Other states, such as Illinois, are managing their own contact centers (with 1,200 agents total).

The landmark healthcare legislation—better known as Obamacare—went into action despite a concerted effort from Republican lawmakers to defund or delay the act, which was ruled constitutional in a 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court last year.

The dispute subsequently resulted in the first government shutdown since 1996, as Congress failed to pass a spending bill due to disagreements on funding the ACA.

Many Americans remain confused about the details of the law and what they will have to do to get health insurance. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last month found more than 60 percent of Americans say they do not have the necessary information to understand how the law will affect them.

White House coordinator for healthcare reform Chris Jennings said the administration will begin a major public information push once the law is in effect.

The rollout will be one of the clearest illustrations of the importance of having a good contact center solution. With millions of confused citizens seeking help, not only must the technology infrastructure be robust enough to cope, but both federal and state exchanges will need to make sure their staffs are knowledgeable and able to provide the right answers.