Kelly Fristoe is an independent agent in Wichita Falls, Texas. The outgoing president of the Texas Association of Health Underwriters has been engrained in his community selling insurance for nearly 23 years and knows the heart of his Texas towns. He can’t imagine a navigator being placed anywhere near his business area — a more rural part of Texas. “We have $8 million for navigators in Texas … I don’t expect that there will be a navigator in communities that’s less than 50,000,” he said during an interview at the National Association of Health Underwriters meeting in Atlanta this week.

“Even if there is a navigator out by me, they’re not going to be able to handle the ranchers in remote areas,” he continued. “My opinion is that navigators will be focused on the inner city, focusing on the people who are not as interested in buying health insurance as the rural ranchers who also will qualify for subsidies.”

In April, the Obama administration announced $54 million in grants for the navigators, whose job will be to provide information about people’s options for coverage under the law, but not provide advice on which coverage to take. The navigators will not be licensed and will be paid hourly at a rate of around $28 - $46 per hour, according to NAHU leadership. CMS has repeatedly assured brokers and agents that they can become navigators if they would like, but they could not receive a commission for any insurance carrier from that point forward. CMS official Gary Cohen, head of the insurance oversight division, said in April that he’s confident brokers will continue to add value in the advice they give to U.S. citizens and employers of all types going into 2014.

At the NAHU conference this week, numerous brokers said that navigators couldn’t begin to replace the roles that they’ve held in their communities for years. Their question: What’s the point of them at all?

“My suspicion is that they won’t play a significant role in most marketplaces,” said NAHU’s new president, Tom Harte of Landmark Benefits in New Hampshire. “They’ll be accessible to those who need it, it may be that they’re more accessible to those people who are Medicaid eligible or need help with subsidies, but ultimately the broker is going to be providing that same service.”

Harte cautions that the details of the navigator program are still being rolled out state-by-state, but most state insurance commissioners will have a disclaimer that navigators will have to hand to a consumer stating that “I can’t tell you to pick plan A or plan B.”

Fristoe says it will be brokers like him who know the ins and outs of communities across the nation who will be taking care of people in remote areas, like the ranchers he discussed. He says he’s considering advising on a fee-based commission model and will take people like them to the public exchanges or find other appropriate private options for them.

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