“Anna” will not stop calling. She really, really wants to sell you health insurance.
What a lot of consumers really, really want is to smack Anna upside her robo-calling head.
With health insurance open-enrollment season underway, automated phone calls offering Affordable Care Act or other health plans are spiking — and driving many consumers to the brink. California residents may have it worst, because its open-enrollment period is twice as long as in other parts of the country.
“It’s at epidemic levels at this time of year,” said Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo, who estimates his spam-call-blocking service, based in Long Island, headed off more than 850,000 health-related robo-calls in October alone — nearly five times the interceptions for September.
Nomorobo tracked about 820 different robo-call pitches for health insurance in the last week of October. More than 100 of them were from the robot Anna.
Almost all of these calls are illegal, according to rules published by the Federal Trade Commission in 2009. Many offer skimpy health plans that do not cover what you might need, insurance regulators and consumer advocates say. Others, they say, are downright fraudulent, with unscrupulous insurance “brokers” taking payment and promising insurance that never comes through.
Alice Cave, 62, a retired data analyst from Alexandria, Va., who spends winters in Tucson, said she has gotten so many of these calls that she typically will not answer her phone unless she recognizes the number. Recently, expecting a call from a California reporter, she answered her cellphone.
It was “Anne.” (Anna’s robot cousin? Other relatives include “Jordan,” “Allison” and “Mandy,” although variants on Anna remain most prevalent.)
“She was saying, ‘I really need to talk to you — we’ve got deals on health insurance.’ I thought, ‘God, what a crock,’ ” Cave said. “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Anything that comes in on the phone, I’m going to be skeptical. Why would they offer me this deal? I already have great insurance. It’s crazy.”
Some fed-up consumers try to stymie robo-callers, with amusing results. Twitter user Jon Heise in June confounded his robot by insisting, after whatever it said, that he was a “meat popsicle.” Eventually, it hung up.
It’s not all fun and games. The California Department of Insurance is investigating health insurance robo-calls, said Janice Rocco, deputy commissioner for health policy and reform. In late August, the agency filed a court order against Health Plan Intermediaries Holdings, accusing the Florida company of deceptive and misleading practices in selling “Obamacare” plans that did not comply with the health law. The company could face fines of up to $10,000 per violation, Rocco said.
In this case, the company’s robo-calls featured “Anne,” according to the court order. In its legal response, the company did not admit to the agency’s allegations and denied responsibility. A hearing date has not yet been set, Rocco said. (Arkansas’ insurance commissioner issued a cease-and-desist order against the company in 2016.)
Under federal law, calls using prerecorded messages are legal only for such things as doctor appointment reminders, flight cancellations, credit card fraud alerts and political candidates. Calls to sell products and services are not.
In a typical robo-call sales pitch, a friendly female voice comes on the line. Sometimes the call appears to originate from major insurers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield or Aetna or from a local number a caller might suppose is a school or neighbor.
Often, the voice will ask the consumer to dial “1” to enroll or “2” to opt out of future calls. Both options can be a trap, experts say.
“If you pick up, you become a lead that’s sent to health insurance agents or brokers,” Nomorobo’s Foss said. And option 2 doesn’t put you on a do-not-call list; it merely lets the spammers know they’ve hit a working number, he said.
A reporter from Kaiser Health News connected with one of the insurance brokers behind one of these robo-calls by pressing the dreaded “1.”
A man identifying himself as “Ray Khan” said he is a licensed insurance broker and provided a National Insurance Producer Registry number. The reporter was unable to locate Khan in that national registry with that number, which was not assigned to anyone.
Khan asked for the reporter’s Social Security number and other personal information. He said he did not have an office and that enrollment needed to be done over the phone. He referred the caller to a website that does not provide information about plans offered but is a platform for consumers to be contacted by brokers.
“It’s a legitimate company. We work for different insurance carriers,” Khan said. “You have to trust someone if you want to do it.”
That is what you shouldn’t do — trust folks who call you out of the blue, Rocco said. “Someone selling a comprehensive medical plan is not going to be reaching you via a robo-call,” she said.
Most of what is sold through these automated calls are “skinny plans” that don’t comply with ACA requirements, or are short-term insurance plans, which typically offer coverage for only a few months and often don’t cover preexisting conditions or prescription drugs. Such plans have been outlawed in California, starting Jan. 1.
Despite state and federal crackdowns — some involving multimillion-dollar fines — robo-calls aren’t going away anytime soon. So the best thing for consumers to do when they receive one is to just hang up or, like Cave, not respond to unfamiliar numbers, advises the Federal Communications Commission.
Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service and an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.