At 18 years old, Ronnell Nolan got her start in the insurance industry. But after working her way from claims typist to broker within her agency, she hit a glass ceiling. “I worked at a company that didn’t think women should be agents because they might be out on calls during the day and want to stop and shop,” she says.

She realized it was time to venture into agency ownership herself. “It should have been scary, but for some reason it was just the right thing to do and I just wanted to work for myself,” she says. “There aren’t as many women in the field as men, and so it was really hard to work for a man. Clients, of course, love women because we go the extra mile.” 

Several years later, it was that same passion for the industry and for the people she wanted to help — the end users of insurance, who she says are always on her mind — that she decided she wanted to lobby for the industry in her hometown of Baton Rouge, La., the state capital. Nolan saw so much success that, 10 years ago, she shifted her insurance agency into what she calls a bipartisan governmental affairs firm, called the Nolan Group, now solely focused on agent lobbying issues. She maintains her licensing as a broker and helps a few small-group and individual clients obtain insurance coverage in her “spare time.”

All these decisions set Nolan up for the next big step in her professional life: At nearly 51 years old, she decided to go national.

HAFA

In the last year, Nolan has overseen the creation of a new trade association for agents, both group- and individual-focused, because she saw a “gap in representation in Washington for the independent agent.” She founded Health Agents for America, Inc., or HAFA, alongside several other brokers, many of whom now sit on the 12-member board. Don Massad is one of them. “It’s the only association only comprised of brokers and agencies,” explains the principal at Massad Olinde Benefits Consulting, also located in Baton Rouge.

The group ensures this criterion is met by requiring potential members to sell products from at least two carriers and show that they are not captive. Nolan is currently the only full-time employee, serving as president and CEO. Michael Keegan, a Washington-based lobbyist, who was previously employed at the National Association of Health Underwriters, works part-time for the group on federal matters as well as social media networking.

“The reason it was created is because there came a fork in the road when agents got their commissions cut by 50% with the medical loss ratio,” Nolan says. “When agents sat down together and said, ‘We need to think about this,’ carriers sat on all the boards of all of our sister organizations. How can you tell those people to stand down? So, the people who really needed to talk, all the agents, weren’t able to do that. But now HAFA allows agents to sit down and talk about what they need.”

So far, HAFA’s largest presence is in Louisiana, where it all began, but they’ve added members in Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania. Massad, who still maintains his membership in NAHU, NAHA’s Louisiana chapter and the National Association of Financial Advisors, says it’s incredible to watch it grow.

“In my 26 years [in the industry], I have never once been as excited about being a part of a professional association,” he says. “HAFA is very grassroots. We are represented at a very local level as well as national. Most of the other organizations cover a very broad spectrum nationally and we have good representation through them, but HAFA is different.”

Differentiating

Nolan says the biggest distinction between HAFA and other groups is the two-carrier requirement, but other nuances of her execution add up to noticeable variances, too.

“What agents need to survive is knowledge and information, and we’ve tried to provide that in real-time,” she explains. “If the [Healthcare.gov] system is down this second, as soon as it happens I send an email out. Sometimes it’s … three or four emails in one day, but you can’t say I didn’t give you everything.”

She adds: “We don’t have [local or state] chapters, we have webinars where I can reach all members at one time. They’re working really hard. They don’t need to go to luncheons in the middle of the day — they just need to know what they need to know to keep their businesses running.”

HAFA’s membership is more than 500 people and counting. That’s in comparison to the other primarily health-focused agent group, NAHU, which fluctuates somewhere between 19,000 and 20,000 members in a given year.

“Each association has a different focus and mission statement, and NAHU focuses on the needs of our membership,” says NAHU spokeswoman Kathryn Gaglione when asked about HAFA’s development. “We work with many organizations through coalitions and partnerships to help Americans access the health care they need, as well as educate policymakers about the vital role of health insurance agents and brokers.”

Early success

While HAFA may seem small in comparison to others, their work so far in Louisiana tells a bigger tale. Last year, the first year of their existence, Nolan “passed two bills in Louisiana, and you never usually pass legislation in the first year,” she says. The first accomplishment was a bill requiring anyone, or any organization, who becomes a navigator to register with the state.

“We were up against the unions, AFL-CIO, the SEIU,” recounts Nolan. “They called a committee meeting on Memorial Day when all the other lobbyists were on vacation and it was me and the AFL, who read out the wrong bill, which killed my bill.” But that didn’t stop her. She attached her language to another bill in the state senate that got passed and “they didn’t know what hit them … we did something sly and it worked,” she says. “It was very exciting.”

The other bill was one that specifically helped agent commissions in the state. It allows agents to tack on an additional agency fee to premiums as long as it’s agreed upon with the client and very transparent. “With agents losing, in the last few years, at least 50% of their commissions, they’re continuing to bleed,” she says, adding that she counts it as a crucial win.

She has also developed a knack for monitoring the information being distributed by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and has the dexterity within HAFA to quickly disseminate updates to her email database. Between herself and her part-timer Keegan, the two are constantly checking on the CMS website looking for updates that affect brokers’ work on and off the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges in some way. It’s her theory of supplying constant information that has drawn agencies in other states to start joining HAFA.

One example is Angie Surra of St. Mary’s, Penn. “We realized last summer that we didn’t have the right understanding of health reform and we weren’t receiving information from our carriers,” says the general manager of St. Mary’s Insurance Agency, Inc. “Ronnell was one of the speakers [at a conference in October] and we were immediately drawn to her because she was out there supporting agents … she gives us information that otherwise no one is giving us.” Surra says at first she was skeptical about how someone from Louisiana could help their small-town Pennsylvania agency, but now she has no doubt that HAFA can work for other states.

The future

“Through her we’ve been able to go to our legislators and we know where to go to fix some of the problems we deal with every day,” Surra says. “Without Ronnell, I don’t know what I would do.”

HAFA’s board member Massad adds that agents shouldn’t worry about location. “The boots-on-the-ground model can be replicated anywhere,” he says, explaining that Nolan has a skill for empowering agents anywhere and knows how to localize her message. “We want HAFA to be in every state, that’s our goal. There is no one state that could not benefit from a common voice comprised only of agents and brokers. It has been a tremendous asset to our state and will be to others.”

Nolan echoes Massad’s ambitions, noting that their vision as they add members is to always keep fees accessible  ­— they go down as low as $150. She also plans to keep HAFA’s email notifications for brokers open to anyone interested, even if they aren’t paying membership dues. She’s confident some day they will see her value and “become a part of our HAFA army.”

Nolan travels to speak at conferences throughout the country and to Washington regularly to work on the new federal goals for the group. In fact, she notes that agents should watch this week for new, broker-friendly legislation that she’s worked to craft with a U.S. senator.

As she prepares to turn 52 on March 31, the irony of the public exchanges’ open enrollment period ending that very day makes her chuckle. “I’m going to celebrate that it’s over,” she says. But preparations for open enrollment 2015 begin the next day, she notes.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Employee Benefit Adviser content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access