A hotline set up by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to assist brokers with the public exchanges will only assist agents with user IDs, site registration and training questions — not client issues.

In September, the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight said it would launch a direct hotline for brokers to answer “general” agent questions and issues related to the federally-facilitated marketplace. At the time, it was not clear what the hotline would be able to assist with.

The hotline, which has now launched, “isn’t exactly what we have been asking for all along,” says Marcy Buckner, vice president of government affairs at the National Association of Health Underwriters. “We had high hopes when we heard [CMS] was working on something like this,” she explains. “We are grateful for what we are being given and trying to stay positive on what we can work on for future open enrollment periods.”

Also see: "How public exchanges could alter the paradigm for the private market."

Buckner says CMS has told her this hotline is all they were able to offer for 2016 plan year open enrollment, but the agency has plans in the future to increase support, as able. While she did not have a specific timeline from CMS, it will not be until at least 2017 open enrollment, if not 2018 or beyond. “We are happy to be recognized and have some additional support,” she says. [We] really look forward to working on getting that additional support that we had in mind for future enrollments.”

B. Ronnell Nolan, president of agent lobbying group Health Agents for America, says she explained why it was needed in her conversations with CMS as the agency was developing this hotline. “We have clients with complex situations and we need assistance beyond the marketplace representatives,” she recalls telling CMS.

“We need a hotline to help with the client who has cancer and the marketplace cancels his coverage while he needs treatment, or the client who is due next week and the marketplace cancels her coverage,” she says.  “I am so angry and cannot believe the agent … community has been duped again by CMS. We asked for the navigator newsletter, they create a new one for agents and brokers. … We ask[ed] for the same hotline given to navigators and they create another one.”

“Why are navigators given support and we are given smoke and mirrors,” she asks.  “When is someone going to wake up and take notice [that] CMS is going out of their way to give … navigators, who are paid by tax dollars, more information than the small business owners across America?”

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 (R-La.).

Also see: "37K advisers complete 2016 federal marketplace training."

"Independent agents and brokers were helping people get health care long before Obamacare. Instead of leveraging this expertise to help people, Obamacare uses their own agents called navigators, who have far less understanding of health insurance,” says John Cummins, a spokesman for Cassidy. “We need to equalize the playing field for independent agents and brokers, and Sen. Cassidy has introduced legislation to do just that."

When asked for comment, Aaron Albright, a spokesperson for CMS, re-sent a September agency statement that says, “the personal assistance that agents and brokers provide marketplace consumers is incredibly important.”

“There are a lot of choices when it comes to signing up for health coverage and we value the role that agents and brokers play in helping people understand their options and enroll in quality and affordable coverage,” the September statement reads. “With the start of open enrollment just around the corner, CMS recently announced that the Marketplace will provide agents and brokers with additional telephone support during open enrollment for 2016 if they have issues regarding agent and broker registration policies, login issues or the new marketplace learning management system.”

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