Are brokers still important in today’s post-Affordable Care Act health insurance industry? The CEO of Healthcare.gov thinks so.

“The broker is integral … as integral as it can be in the sale and distribution of our product,” Kevin Counihan said Tuesday at the National Association of Health Underwriters’ Capitol Conference in Washington, D.C. “That does not mean the role of the broker doesn’t evolve.”

Also see: Are exchanges weakening the role of the broker?

With something as complex as the ACA, consumers need advice to purchase the right plan, Counihan said, and the government needs to do more to support brokers. “The issue of whether brokers are important or not, that’s not even a question,” he said. “The issue is, how can we better serve you guys?”

The best way for brokers to serve customers who purchase health insurance on the marketplaces is through education, Counihan said. “People are confused about the law,” he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services needs to provide more tools for brokers, Counihan said, such as a helpline for brokers during open enrollment. “That’s something we’re investigating right now,” he said. A change will also be made on Healthcare.gov to better connect consumers with local brokers, Counihan said.

Also see: Were brokers an ‘afterthought’ on the state exchanges?  

After a rough first enrollment, year two was much better. Last week, President Obama announced that 11.4 million people had health insurance under the ACA — about 10% more than expected, Counihan said. “There’s a lot of good energy around health reform this year,” he said.

Consumers have more choice now, Counihan said, as the number of insurance companies grew by 25%. “We believe in competition. We believe in the marketplace,” he said. “We believe that that’s the way that value can be added most to you and your customers.”

Signing up for health care was much easier in year two as well, Counihan said. The average number of enrollment screens a consumer had to click through dropped from 76 down to 16, he said, and it took less than 30 minutes on average to compare plans and purchase insurance. “That’s not bad,” Counihan said. “It is perfect? Absolutely not. Is it going to get better every year? You bet.”

Making sure the front end of the website was working was the top priority, Counihan said, now the focus is on backend issues. “It’s not going to be as fast as everybody wants, but we’re going to get there,” he said. “We’re gonna make good progress this year and even more progress next year.”

A long-term goal is to have the exchange serve as a resource for the entire country, Counihan said, such as providing health literacy. Many people don’t fully understand what coverage they’re buying, some buy it for the wrong reason and others don’t make the best selection, Counihan said.

Many consumers don’t understand fundamental terminology like co-payment, deductible and out-of-pocket maximums, he said. “That’s not obvious to the average consumer, so we’ve got to do more there.”

Implementing the ACA is a multi-year process, and Counihan asked for patience. “I’m not trying to make excuses,” he said. “You do the best you can every year. You find things that need to get changed and you change them.” 

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