Meeting with a health insurance carrier on day two of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchange open enrollment period Wednesday, David Smith, vice president at Ebenconcepts in Morrisville, N.C., did not like what he was hearing.

The carrier, which Smith declined to identify, shared how one of its agents had attempted to enroll a client on the North Carolina health insurance marketplace website. Due to widespread technological issues, that agent was forced have the client complete their preliminary enrollment by phone. The client was then directed to log back on to to complete their plan selection. According to Smith, the client said, “I still want to make sure my agent gets paid on this because he’s been very helpful,” but, the person at the call center responded, “That’s not going to happen. He’s not going to get paid. In fact, you can’t even go into the process now and make sure that he gets paid. He’s out.”

While coming from a third-hand account, the inference, says Smith, is that agents will not be paid by assisting a client over the phone, only on Web-only interactions. Smith has placed a call to his National Association of Health Underwriters resource center to look into the issue.

Meanwhile, Covered California, the California state-run exchange system, is experiencing a “bottleneck” that’s led to many agents not yet receiving their proper certification to be able to sell on the exchanges, according to Michael Wolff, chief operations and financial officer at Dickerson Employee Benefits in Los Angeles. One of only four agencies in the state authorized to be a Covered California wholesaler, Dickerson is in the process of helping to train the more than 17,000 agents who have signed up to participate. “What happened is that Covered California estimated that maybe four or five thousand agents would go through the trouble of an eight-hour class and four-hour online course and a test, so they were budgeting and planning for that kind of interest,” says Wolff.

Speaking Wednesday during the lunch break of an exchange certification class he was putting on for 460 agents in Southern California, Neil Crosby, director of sales at Warner Pacific Insurance Services in Westlake Village, Calif., reports that about 1,600 agents have completed the certification process in California so far. “It’s quite daunting,” he says of the sheer number of agents still needing to complete the process.

MD Sam Smith, president of Genesis Financial and Insurance Services in the Los Angeles area, serves on the broker advisory board for California’s SHOP exchange. He says it is “frustrating for agents” that most still don’t have their certification numbers that are required to be able to sell on Covered California. “Technically, I can’t have a conversation with a client about Covered California,” says Smith, president of the California Association of Health Underwriters.

Even so, “on the whole, we were happy with the roll out; happy with the way we were treated at press events,” says Smith. “Agents were included with all the press events.”
Even though he hasn’t been able to legally enroll anyone, Smith says agents who are getting calls should “invoke the Jesuit principal … do it and beg for forgiveness.”

For example, until an agent has their official number they are not supposed to advertise that they are a certified agent. “That being said, we did several seminars at local hospitals, and our website has the Covered California logo with disclaimers,” says Smith. “Technically, legally, am I supposed to do that? No. But what am I going to do?”

Wolff reiterates that agents that are not yet certified for Covered California cannot sell on the exchange, “but you can already give [potential enrollees] the information. You can of course be ready,” he says. “We are all studying up.”

And as for those other exchange assistants who are not allowed to sell — navigators (known as certified enrollment counselors in California) — brokers should have “a realistic perspective” about them, says Crosby. “The bottom line is they’re going to help,” he says. “… They can’t write people into the SHOP exchange, they can only enroll individuals; they can’t put individuals into the private market. Their roles are absolutely necessary because they’re reaching a segment of the market that most agents do not. There’s plenty of room.”

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