As open enrollment on the Affordable Care Act’s public exchanges enters its final days, brokers and agents working to get consumers covered have one complaint that still tops their once overflowing list of grievances: carrier availability and flexibility. Several brokers across the nation pinpointed Blue Cross Blue Shield companies in various states as some of the worst culprits.

“Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois is impossible to reach by phone on both the agent side and customer side — wait times are in the hours,” says Anne Petry, broker and consultant at Jaggi Insurance in Forsyth, Ill., where the state is relying on the federally run operating system. “They have the longest wait times to get through on the phone and you can tell they’ve hired a lot of new people once you do reach someone.”

Blue Shield is a source of great frustration in California, too, where the state’s Covered California exchange has seen the highest enrollment of any state to date. Sam Smith, president of the California Association of Health Underwriters and president of Genesis Financial in the Los Angeles area, says the insurer has had the hardest time correcting an issue where thousands of initial applications batched via the exchange were sent without broker pin numbers. “I think they were the least prepared. I don’t know how they could miss the mark,” he says.

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Another California-based broker, Kevin Roberts, said on Facebook that of the two major insurers on the exchange, he’s having a harder time receiving commissions from Blue Shield than Kaiser Permanente.

‘Not the new normal’

Sean Barry, spokesman for Blue Shield of California, says they are aware of the issues for brokers and confirmed Smith’s statement that the backlog was due to incorrect batching by Covered California. “[We] have been working to make our brokers whole over the next several billing cycles,” he says.

Out in Illinois, the company’s sentiment was apologetic. “We understand that an agent's time is valuable, and assure them that any difficulties they’ve experienced are not the new normal,” says Mary Ann Schultz, spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. She says that with many different call centers she’s “unable to respond” about specific phone numbers’ problems but, on average, their wait times are down to two minutes — well under what Petry reports. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, which represents 37 independent insurers throughout the U.S., is offering plans in nearly all of the public state exchanges, according to a Kaiser Health News report.

Ronnell Nolan, president and CEO of the lobbying group Health Agents for America, Inc. hears from brokers every hour of every day about problems with the exchanges and also says the Blue Cross Blue Shield name is coming up. “I got a call from someone who had written 100 applications by Blue Cross and Blue Shield [of Louisiana] and they hadn’t gotten paid yet. The last time I talked to [Blue Cross] they said they would pay us commissions” by now, she says. Another one of her agents confirmed that she didn’t receive payment for the January enrollments until March 18 — almost a month late, according to what the group understands of Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s payment policies.

Bigger picture

The agent wrap of Blue Cross isn’t all bad, however. Kelly Fristoe, an agent working to enroll individuals in Texas, says he is receiving commissions and, “BCBSTX is being very cooperative to make sure the agent is credited appropriately.”

It also isn’t just Blue Cross frustrating agents. While Jaggi says they’re the worst in Illinois for call center issues, she says all insurance companies have long wait times. The concept of the call center is one of great importance to agents, explains Genesis Financial’s Smith, who estimates that 70% of the applications his agency writes require a call to be placed on behalf of the consumer.

“If a person decides to change plans, their income has changed, the carrier hasn’t issued payment information — there’s all sorts of stuff that requires a call. … In California, there are a lot of Latinos and green card holders and it just makes it more complicated,” he says.

The other 30% of applications, that don’t require a call because the person is a U.S. national and has all of their information together, can now be completed in about 10 minutes via the exchange website, he adds.

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