Insurance brokers, agents also caught in HealthCare.gov technology woes

Denver Post reporter Kurtis Lee talks about how the botched Obamacare roll out has affected Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and his reelection bid. (The Washington Post)
November 22, 2013

Brokers and agents say a host of technological problems is blocking their ability to help consumers sign up for coverage through the federal health insurance Web site.

They say it is a particular problem for people with major health issues — those considered high-risk — because they are least able to weather a gap in coverage.

Brokers “have hundreds of these [consumer] files sitting on their desks trying to get help for these people,” said Jessica Waltman, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Health Underwriters, which represents about 200,000 health insurance agents and brokers. Waltman was briefing state insurance regulators by telephone Thursday about enrollment problems in the new health insurance marketplaces. She said the problem was occurring mostly in the 36 states in the federal marketplace.

She and other industry officials said there is widespread consumer confusion about what states and insurers will do about implementing President Obama’s proposal to reverse millions of health insurance cancellations of plans that don’t meet basic requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

Brokers and agents who have completed training and certification can help individuals and small businesses sign up for exchange plans. Because of glitches with HealthCare.gov, many frustrated consumers who haven’t been able to sign up on their own are turning to brokers, Waltman said.

The federal health-care exchange is falling short of expectations

But when brokers get involved in the middle of the process, the online system is not letting them enter their identity numbers. Without those identity numbers, brokers can’t get paid by insurers. And regulators can’t follow up with brokers if there are mistakes.

Brokers and consumers were also supposed to be able to log on to HealthCare.gov at the same time to allow brokers to virtually help consumers shop and enroll. But that process hasn’t been working properly since the Oct. 1 launch. An alternative was to allow brokers and consumers to get on a three-way telephone call with the call center. But brokers “are still being hung up on” by staff at the call centers or told the call center can’t add the broker’s ID number.

Chiquita Brooks-Lasure, a senior federal health official who took part in the briefing, said she thought the agent identity issue had been fixed. “We’re also working on some other issues,” she said. “We are very focused on making sure agents and brokers are able to enroll consumers in coverage.”

Public support for the health-care law fell in November, according to the latest monthly tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. About half now hold an unfavorable view of the law, commonly known as Obamacare . Just a third hold a positive one. That’s the biggest gap in the nearly four years of Kaiser polling on the law. Only once before, in October 2011, during the Republican presidential primaries, was the gap as wide, the report said.

The falloff was largest among Democrats, dropping from 70 percent who held a favorable view of the law in October to 55 percent in November. Among women, who had previously been divided, 48 percent said they have an unfavorable view, up seven points from October and their most negative view of the law to date.

One encouraging sign: Among the uninsured, the visibility of the exchanges has increased. Nearly 30 percent of them have heard “a lot” or “some” about the marketplaces in November, double the 15 percent who were aware in September.

Meanwhile, California became the ninth state to reject Obama’s proposal to reverse cancellation notices. On Thursday, the state exchange board voted against allowing an estimated 1 million cancelled policies to be extended into 2015. Officials said they worried that doing so would create more confusion among Californians.

“If I thought for a minute this could solve our problems, I would vote for this delay,” Covered California board member Susan Kennedy said at the meeting. “I think it would make a bad situation worse.”

The state also reported that nearly 80,000 people had enrolled in health plans as of Nov. 19, a big jump from a month ago. Officials said they were especially pleased by the enrollment numbers of young people, who are critical for success of the exchanges. In the month of October, 18- to 34-year-olds made up 23 percent of the 30,830 Californians who picked a private plan, figures show. That age group makes up 21 percent of the state’s population.

In a separate report Thursday, Families USA, a nonprofit that supports the health-care law, said that about 70 percent of the 15 million Americans who currently buy individual insurance policies, or about 10.8 million people, will qualify for financial help signing up for coverage on the exchanges.

Their analysis suggests that many Americans receiving cancellation notices would receive help through the health-care overhaul because they earn less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, about $45,000 for an individual. Those people would qualify for subsidies to buy a private plan or be eligible for Medicaid, which serves low-income Americans.

Whether they know about that financial help is a different question. Many have had trouble using HealthCare.gov to figure out how much insurance would cost on the new marketplaces. The study does not include information on whether those subsidies would lead to lower premiums for shoppers buying in the new exchanges.

People will likely pay more for better coverage, said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. “But if you’re eligible for subsidies that are going to significantly reduce your premiums,” he said, “that could more than make up for an increase in premium costs.”

Lena H. Sun is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on health.
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