The Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight will launch a direct hotline for brokers to answer “general” agent questions and issues related to the federally-facilitated marketplace.

The broker hotline is expected to launch ahead of open enrollment for plan year 2016, which begins November 1, but no specific date has been announced. The hotline will be “a person to help agents and brokers answer some general questions,” CCIIO has told B. Ronnell Nolan, president and CEO of the lobbying group Health Agents for America.

“They just said general [questions]. I’m not sure what that means,” Nolan says.

CCIIO did not return a request for comment as of press time.

Nolan explains that if the hotline is unable to provide an answer, they may forward the question on to different entities within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

While she is not sure what the hotline will be able to help with, Nolan says it is a step in the right direction for brokers. On a call with CCIIO, Nolan says the agency told her they valued her members — the first time she has heard them say that. “We are getting some attention. We are getting some of the things we need,” she says. “Our issues come when we have things we can’t solve,” such as difficult questions a consumer might ask about citizenship or green cards.

“Finally brokers are starting to be heard,” says Frances B. Maane, a Bethesda, Md.-based broker. “CCIIO and CMS [are] starting to help and work with the brokers, who help the clients enroll. Brokers are the trusted advisers people turn to for insurance advice and enrollment, and as such CCIIO and CMS need to work with us, not exclude us from the process.”

Future plans

The direct call line is one of several improvements CMS has made for brokers moving into open enrollment for plan year 2016. The agency announced in August it will partner with three organizations — the National Association of Health Underwriters, America’s Health Insurance Plans and Gorman Health — to provide agent and broker training for the federally facilitated marketplace. By taking the training through one of the vendors, brokers and agents for the first time will be eligible to receive continuing education credits for the courses, which are required for any agent or broker who wishes to work within the federal exchange.

A bill remains stalled in a U.S. Senate committee that would enhance access for brokers to open enrollment. The Equalizing the Playing Field for Agents and Brokers Act, which included a provision for a direct broker hotline, was introduced by Sen. Bill Cassidy, M.D., (R-La.). “Agents and brokers provide tremendous benefit to their customers to ensure that they sign up for insurance that is right for them,” says John Cummins, a spokesman for Cassidy. “Unfortunately, the Obamacare exchanges have not provided the same access to information to independent agents and brokers as they do navigators.”

The hotline “is the first step towards equalizing the playing field for agents and brokers,” Cummins adds.

Nolan says one of the biggest issues with the marketplace is that it is an “unfair playing field.” Navigators receive weekly webinars and newsletters from CMS and brokers are excluded. “It is stacked to be unfair,” she says. “It’s ridiculous.”

“I think [the government] could be a doing a lot more,” she adds. “I still do not think agents and brokers are valued. I don’t think they understand what we do. They think we are part of the problem and not part of a solution.”

Nolan says that if the government realized agents and brokers were part of the solution, they would give them “everything we wanted and we would have American people enrolled.”

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