Al Pierce just got his broker certification from Washington’s state-run exchange on Oct. 17. That’s nearly three weeks after the exchange opened and almost two months since he completed the required training on Sept. 3.

“That’s disappointing, certainly,” says the president of the Washington Association of Health Underwriters and managing member of O’Connell-Pierce Benefits, LLC in Spokane, Wash.

The state released numbers on Tuesday that about 4,520 people have bought health coverage. “I would have to imagine that a portion, if not a good portion, of those did not have … an agent,” he says, because of how late into October he received his own “agent writing number.”

‘Our market now’

Washington is unique in that only two counties have a SHOP exchange component. Although traditionally a group benefits adviser Pierce, who does not work in one of those two counties, will be enrolling only individuals when working on the exchanges.

“We understand that this is our market now, and we’re looking at this as an opportunity to expand and grow our business,” he says. “We were thinking we were a part of putting together an exchange that will work for everyone — the consumer, the state, the exchange itself and the broker community — because that’s our marketplace.”

He explains that WAHU worked hard to make suggestions for how brokers can help consumers the most on the exchange. But the group “felt shut out” when the state neglected to include an option for individuals signing themselves up to input an agent’s number to link the sale to that agent.

The way it works now is that when “a person makes an account they get a drop-down menu of agent names and can choose one.” But with many people window shopping, if they do not do the agent selection first, but do receive advice from an agent at some point, he explains it’s difficult for the consumer to add an agent’s number when making their final purchase.

Pierce reiterates: “Things have been disappointing on the agent side, but the exchange itself had 1.9 million hits on Oct. 1 …. and it’s accomplishing what I think their intent is, which is to allow access to information from a consumer point of view.”

Other states

EBA has reported on California’s similar bottleneck in agent certification, with only 1,295 insurance agents cleared to work on the exchange by Oct. 12, with 3,382 approvals in progress. So while many media outlets have been reporting that the state-run exchanges like Washington, Connecticut and Kentucky are working better than the federally-run, it’s not quite that way from the broker perspective.

“In Kentucky, we have small groups thinking about individual a lot,” says Matt Schwartz, president of Schwartz Employee Benefits in Louisville, Ky., and president of Kentucky Association of Health Underwriters. This is a trend that other brokers have flagged since Oct. 1.

“It’s a big sigh of relief that we don’t have the problems that everyone else has,” Schwartz says about website and rate issues. And Schwartz and his colleague who went through the state’s broker training didn’t have problems with certification, either. Where there are problems in Kentucky, he says, is on the SHOP exchange.

“The only small-group rates we have so far are Anthem, and they’re not really ready yet,” he says. “We can’t go on a computer. We have to send it to them on paper and wait.” And for an agent who isn’t planning to focus on individuals much at all, this is a problem.

Both Pierce and Schwartz were hopeful that the worst is over for brokers. “I have a feeling that I’ll see more qualified health plans sold over the coming weeks and months because I think those people will be involved with agents who were waiting for their names to appear on the site,” Pierce says.

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