Brokers in Maryland gained a new access point to small business prospects in May when the Maryland Health Care Commission teamed with benefits administration software provider Benefitfocus to offer employers with two to 50 employees online access to an information-only insurance portal. The portal, VIRTUAL COMPARE, includes a registry of local brokers and gives employers the ability to compare products from leading carriers. EBA spoke with Nancy Sansom, SVP of marketing and communications, and John Emge, government programs manager, at Benefitfocus about the portal's boon for brokers and its potential as a model for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's state insurance exchanges.
How did the portal come into being?
Sansom: They passed this in advance of the health care reform legislation. The state of Maryland wanted to create transparency for small business owners. We were rewarded the contract around the time that PPACA passed.
What the portal does is allow insurance carriers to post certain plans that meet the requirements of the Maryland Health Care Commission. So we have Aetna participating, CareFirst BlueCross/BlueShield, Coventry Health Care and UnitedHealthcare.
How do brokers register for the portal?
Sansom: They go online and [complete] a pretty simple, straightforward process. Within the first week that we launched it, we had about 700 brokers register. So what that means is that as employers are on there searching for health plans, they can also search for a broker in their area. If they know of a broker or know of a company, they can search for them that way, or they can just enter a zip code.
What does it show about the brokers?
Emge: The brokers play such a strong role in supporting the small business market. The brokers can go on and register and put on their information. They also register what carriers they can represent. When a small business owner or a consumer, an employee, accesses the database they can not only search for a geographic qualification which has all the contact information of the broker, but they can also look at which brokers represent CareFirst, United, Coventry, etc. There's also a mapping feature in that where they can find directions and a map to the broker's location.
Is it free to join?
Sansom: It's a public website for both the brokers and the employers. It's just http://mhcc.maryland.gov/virtualcompare.
So anyone can come across this. We don't even make them sign in or anything. They can just enter three or four pieces of information about their company and then they can go ahead and start searching for plans. So it's pretty easy to use.
Do you do this for any other states?
Sansom: We're in discussions with many of the other states. John's department is focused on government solutions.
Emge: We're really taking the products we've developed in the commercial space over the last 11 years - not only the shop-and-compare type functionality that we've provided for the state of Maryland, but also the other aspects, functional elements that would be needed for a state exchange: eligibility determination, subsidy determination, enrollment, billing and ongoing benefits administration. All of those we've already been delivering to the market on behalf of the carriers. We're meeting with many of the states to provide that solution to them as they begin to plan and develop their state exchanges. But all the states are really obviously very early in that process.
Is this going to link to Maryland's exchange system?
Emge: This is a self-standing entity. The functional aspect of the shop-and-compare will be part of state exchanges. The state of Maryland just passed their legislation to [establish] an exchange, so during the course of this year they will go through planning, process and analysis, as most states are doing. Maryland is one of the few states that have actually passed legislation. As of [mid-May] only six states had actually passed legislation to [establish] state exchanges. So during the course of this year they're doing their planning and analysis and then toward the end of the year, or early next year, they'll actually begin their selection process for vendors to support those exchanges.
This seems to show how easily brokers can fit into an exchange.
Sansom: At Benefitfocus we've always had this idea of an open platform that can support multiple different insurance carriers, multiple benefits, multiple brokers. So we've always kind of thought of ourselves as Switzerland, if you will. Where if an employee needs to make their benefits they may need to see Aetna or the Blues or competing carriers there. So what exchanges need are these multi-carrier environments.
So it's kind of neat, we were sort of in the right place at the right time when Maryland issued this because we have a lot of experience providing shopping tools. Not just to consumers but to employer groups as well. And brokers are a huge user of the Benefitfocus platform.
We have almost 60,000 brokers today that use Benefitfocus, separate from this particular Maryland site.
How has the reception been?
Emge: It's been extremely positive. Carriers, brokers, members of the Maryland Health Care Commission as well as political figures have been very, very impressed with it. How it functions, how it looks. The carriers have been just fantastic to work with through this process. That's one of the things that as I go around and meet with the other states I hold Maryland up as an example of engaging the carriers early in the process. Because the carriers obviously have the product that's going to be put on the shelf, and Maryland did an excellent job of engaging with the carriers very, very early on.
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