In an online article in the blog Politico, writer Jennifer Haberkorn notes that many lawmakers who voted against the Democrats’ health care reform overhaul are now pushing the government to help insurance agents stay employed after the deal comes into effect.
Agents are hoping to be included on the government’s Web portal of insurance options in time for scheduled updates this fall and want to have some kind of contact information listed on the health insurance exchanges when they open in 2014.
A bipartisan group of House members say Congress’s intent is to include agents and brokers in the reformed health care system. The members see a role for them “both inside and outside health insurance exchanges,” they wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week.
“It is important that the consumer’s option to contact independent and state-licensed health insurance agents and brokers be included no later than Oct. 1, when the portal is scheduled to be finalized,” the 25 lawmakers wrote.
But the group includes only a few health reform supporters: Democratic Reps. Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Baron Hill of Indiana and Adam Smith of Washington. Twenty-two additional lawmakers who voted against the legislation signed the letter, including 17 Republicans and five Democrats. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) originated the letter.
The lawmakers hit on a key concern for agents: that the reform law’s dramatic changes in the way people purchase health insurance might cut them out of the system, or, on the other hand, create new opportunities to expand their businesses.
The Web portal, which is already up and running at healthcare.gov, was required by the reform law to be a place where consumers can compare insurance plans. An update with more comprehensive information is due in October. The site is seen as a precursor to the state exchanges, where consumers will be able to compare insurance plans and purchase coverage in 2014.
Agents are worried that both threaten to take them out of the process of buying coverage. They argue that the process of buying insurance — particularly in the individual market — isn’t as easy as clicking around a website.
“Our members and agents in general have been communicating … that they want to be involved in the process with regard to the exchanges,” said Jessica Waltman, senior vice president of government affairs at the National Association of Health Underwriters, a trade group of agents and brokers. “We believe there is still going to be a role for them.”
Several state insurance commissioners say they’ve gotten angry feedback from agents who are worried about their future. But the commissioners, who are advising HHS on many components of the new legislation, say the agents’ role could become even more important as consumers try to understand the complex new legislation, which involves coverage requirements, tax credits and state exchanges.