President Obama signs PPACA. (AP Photo)

Here’s the text of the Establishment of Exchanges and Qualified final rule, and also the text of a related interim final rule.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) posted the final rule today to implement the provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) that are supposed to create a new set of state-based exchanges, or Web-based health insurance supermarkets, that individuals and small groups can use to buy health coverage.

Arthur D. Postal has posted an article about the final rule at http://www.lifehealthpro.com.

In case you would like to read an unedited version of some of the more interesting sections of the regulation, here are some of the provisions that relate to agents, brokers and Navigators.

One interesting section of the preamble to the regulations, in which HHS officials discuss the role of agents and brokers in selling exchange coverage:

Comment: With respect to proposed §155.220(a), many commenters urged us to set standards around the use of agents and brokers in order to ensure certain consumer protections.

These suggestions included having Exchanges to monitor and oversee all agents and brokers enrolling individuals and small groups in QHPs; establishing provisions to mitigate agents’ and brokers’ incentives to steer consumers to enroll in certain QHPs or to non-QHPs; setting uniform commissions for agents and brokers or establishing that issuers must compensate agents and brokers the same amount for Exchange and non-Exchange plans; prohibiting commissions for agents and brokers in the Exchange altogether; establishing certain disclosures by agents and brokers, including disclosure of their commission and whether or not the agent or broker has been the subject of any sanctions; applying privacy and confidentiality standards to agents and brokers; prohibiting Exchanges from directing individuals or small groups to enroll only through an agent or broker; prohibiting advertising by agents or brokers; or prohibiting agents and brokers from the Exchange altogether. A number of commenters also expressed concern regarding the role of third-party webbased entities enrolling individuals in QHPs.

Several commenters emphasized that such external entities should be held to the same standards as the Exchange; should not be permitted to perform eligibility determinations; or should be held to certain consumer protection standards to prevent steering.

Response: We recognize the importance of consumer protections with respect to agents and broker interactions. We also recognize the States’ role in licensing and overseeing agents and brokers and have allowed States to determine which standards would apply to agents and brokers acting in the Exchange, if the State chooses to permit agents and brokers to enroll individuals and small groups in QHPs through the Exchange.

In order to address commenters’ concerns while maintaining the State’s primary role in overseeing agents and brokers, we have added paragraph (d) to ensure that agents and brokers must comply with an agreement with the Exchange under which the agent or broker would comply with the Exchange’s privacy and security standards that are adopted consistent with §155.260 and §155.270.

We have also added paragraph (e) to ensure that agents and brokers comply with applicable State law. We also recognize that the role of web-brokers may evolve upon implementation of Exchanges, and that Exchanges may seek to involve Web-brokers in the enrollment process using a variety of technologies.

We have set forth standards in this rule to ensure that consumers enjoy a seamless experience with appropriate consumer protections if an Exchange chooses to allow Web-brokers to participate in Exchange enrollment activities.

In order to address commenters’ particular concerns around the role of Web-based entities, we note that eligibility determinations must be conducted by the Exchange and enrollment information must be transmitted to the QHP issuer by the Exchange.

We have added paragraph (c)(3) to §155.220 to ensure that Web sites used by agents or brokers to enroll individuals in a manner that constitutes enrollment through the Exchange provide consumers with access to the same information as they would if they used the Exchange Web site instead.

Based on several commenters’ suggestion that we address agents’ and brokers’ ability to steer or incentivize consumers to enroll in certain QHPs, and commenters’ general concern about the fact that the existence of such Web sites may confuse consumers, we have inserted standards under paragraph (c)(3) of this section to prevent such web-brokers from providing financial incentives and to establish that such Web sites must allow consumers to withdraw from the web-broker’s process and use the Exchange Web site instead at any time.

Furthermore, the web-brokers would also be subject to the standards inserted under paragraph (d) and (e) regarding compliance with an agreement with the Exchange and State law, respectively.

Here’s a section of the preamble in which officials talk about how often exchange managers can consult with insurers, agents and brokers:

Comment: We received a number of comments stating that HHS should limit the number
of consultations with health insurance issuers, agents, and brokers described in proposed
§155.130(j) and (k) to minimize any potential conflicts of interest. One commenter
recommended that consultation with a health insurance issuer be made fully transparent, while
several other commenters recommended that the consultation only include agents and brokers
that enroll qualified individuals, employers, or employees.

Response: We understand the concerns of commenters, but also acknowledge that health
insurance issuers and agents and brokers are likely to play a significant role in the Exchange. We
encourage Exchanges to be transparent in the consultation process. Furthermore, in States where
the Exchange is not housed in the department of insurance, we expect there to be regular
consultation between the Exchange and the department of insurance, given the need for
coordination between the two entities.

Here’s an excerpt about the licenses that the agents, brokers and “Navigators” (ombudsmen) who deal with exchanges ought to hold:

Comment: A majority of commenters proposed that Navigators should not have to hold an agent or broker license or errors and omissions liability coverage in order to be certified or licensed as a Navigator. Conversely, a small number of commenters suggested that Navigators hold an agent or broker license as well as errors and omissions coverage and that Navigators should be subject to the same licensing and education standards established for agents and brokers.

Response: We accept the commenters’ suggestion that States and Exchanges should not be able to stipulate that Navigators hold an agent or broker license, and we clarify that States or Exchanges are prohibited from adopting such a standard, including errors and omissions coverage. “Agent or broker” is defined in §155.20 as “a person or entity licensed by the State as an agent, broker, or insurance producer.”

Thus, establishing licensure standards for Navigators would mean that all Navigators would be agents and brokers, and would violate the standard set forth §155.210(c)(2) of the final rule that at least two types of entities must serve as Navigators

Additionally, we do not think that holding an agent or broker license is necessary or sufficient to perform the duties of a Navigator as these licenses generally do not address training, among other things, about public coverage options.

Here is a section on conflicts of interest and Navigators, and how exchanges ought to let consumers know about the availability of the services of agents and brokers.

We are finalizing the provisions proposed in §155.210 of the proposed rule, with the following modifications. In new paragraph (b), we provide that an Exchange must develop and publicly disseminate conflict of interest and training standards for all entities that serve as Navigators. In paragraph (c)(1)(v), we apply the privacy and security standards adopted by the Exchange, as established in §155.260, to Navigators. In paragraph (c)(2), we provided that at least one entity serving as a Navigator must be a community and consumer-focused non-profit. We clarified in paragraphs (d)(2) and (d)(3) that subsidiaries of health insurance issuers and associations that include members of or lobby on behalf of the insurance industry are prohibited from serving as Navigators.

In paragraph (d)(4) we clarified that Navigators may not receive compensation from a health insurance issuer in connection with the enrollment of individuals or employees in any health plan, including both QHPs and non-QHPs. Finally, in paragraph (e)(3) we clarified that Navigators must assist consumers in selecting a QHP, thereby initiating the enrollment process. e. Ability of States to permit agents and brokers to assist qualified individuals, qualified employers, or qualified employees enrolling in QHPs (§155.220)  

Based on comments and feedback to the proposed rule, we are revising the rule to include paragraph (a)(3) of this section as an interim final provision, and we are seeking comments on it. In §155.220, we proposed to codify section 1312(e) of the Affordable Care Act that gives States the option to permit agents or brokers to enroll individuals and employers in QHPs.

To ensure that individuals and small groups have access to information about agents and brokers should they wish to use one, we proposed to permit an Exchange to display information about agents and brokers on its Web site or in other publicly available materials.

Additionally, recognizing that that an Exchange may wish to work with Web-based entities and other entities with experience in health plan enrollment, we sought comment on the functions that such entities could perform, the potential scope of how these entities would interact with the Exchange, and the standards that should apply to an entity performing functions in place of, or on behalf of, an Exchange while acknowledging and meeting the statutory limitation that premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions be limited to enrollment through the Exchange.

We also sought comment on the practical implications, costs, and benefits to an Exchange that coordinates with such entities, as well as any implications for security or privacy of such an arrangement.

Comment: A number of commenters sought clarification on whether and how the involvement of agents and brokers described in proposed §155.220 may serve as Navigators under §155.210. Many commenters sought further clarification as to the distinction between the role of agents or brokers and the role of Navigators in the Exchange.

Response: In general, the responsibilities of a Navigator differ from the activities that an agent or broker. For example, the duties of a Navigator described under §155.210(e) of the final rule include providing information regarding various health programs, beyond private health insurance plans, and providing information in a manner that is culturally and linguistically  appropriate to the needs of the population being served by the Exchange. 

Moreover, any individual or entity serving as a Navigator may not be compensated for enrolling individuals in QHPs or health plans outside of the Exchange; as such, an agent or broker serving as a Navigator would not be permitted to receive compensation from a health insurance issuer for enrolling individuals in particular health plans. That said, nothing precludes an Exchange’s Navigator program from including agents and brokers, subject to the conditions of §155.210.

Comment: Several commenters expressed support for the proposed §155.220(a) and the level of flexibility it affords State Exchanges to determine the role of agents and brokers and web-based entities in the Exchange marketplace. Several commenters specifically expressed support for the manner in which the accompanying preamble to the proposed rule described the Exchange as accountable for the actions of web-based entities. 

Response: We accept the recommendation that Exchanges have the flexibility to determine the role of agents and brokers, including web-based entities, in their marketplaces. We have retained the language in §155.220(a), which codifies the statutory flexibility that States may determine whether agents and brokers may enroll individuals, employers and employees in QHPs and provide assistance to qualified individuals applying for financial assistance. 

Comment: HHS received several comments urging us to prohibit agents and brokers, including web-based brokers, from performing eligibility determinations.

Response: The Exchange must perform eligibility determinations, subject to the standards and flexibility outlined in subpart D of this final rule. We note that an individual cannot enroll in a QHP through the Exchange, nor can a QHP issuer enroll a qualified individual in a QHP through the Exchange, unless such individual completes the single streamlined application to determine eligibility as described in §155.405 and is determined eligible.

We have clarified in  §156.265(b)(1) that that enrollment by QHP issuer may be considered “enrollment through the Exchange” only after the Exchange notifies the QHP issuer that the individual has received an eligibility determination, the individual is qualified to enroll in a QHP through the Exchange, and the Exchange transmits enrollment information to the QHP issuer consistent with §155.400(a). In §155.220(c)(1), we also specify that an individual can be enrolled in a QHP through the Exchange with the assistance of an agent or broker only if the agent or broker ensures that the individual completes the application and eligibility verification process through the Exchange Web site.

We acknowledge and clarify that nothing in this final rule prohibits a QHP issuer from selling QHP coverage directly or through an agent or broker, so long as the standards of §156.255(b) are met; however, such sales and enrollment are not “enrollment through the Exchange” and such enrollees are not eligible for the benefits that are tied to enrollment through the Exchange.

Comment: With respect to proposed §155.220(a), several commenters sought clarification of the role agents and brokers in enrolling individuals in QHPs. Several commenters urged us to strengthen the role of agents and brokers in the Exchange by further clarifying their ability to participate in the Exchange marketplace. With respect to the preamble discussion of web-based entities, several commenters urged HHS to permit web-based entities in particular to enroll individuals eligible for advance payments of the premium tax credit and cost-sharing reductions in QHPs so that such individuals may have access to the same avenues for QHP enrollment as those individuals who do not receive financial assistance.

Response: We accept the recommendation that we provide Exchanges with discretion to leverage the market presence of agents and brokers, including web-based entities that are licensed by the State (web-brokers), to draw consumers to the Exchange and to QHPs. We have  amended §155.220 to include minimum standards for the process by which an agent or broker may help enroll an individual in a QHP in a manner that constitutes enrollment through the Exchange.

This is intended to include traditional agents and brokers, as well as web-brokers. This process must include the completion by the individual of a single streamlined application to determine eligibility through the Exchange’s Web site, as described in §155.405; the transmission of enrollment information by the Exchange to the QHP issuer to allow the issuer to effectuate enrollment of qualified individuals in the QHP; and any standards set forth in an agreement between the agent or broker and the Exchange.

We note that there may be various means a State may choose to integrate agents, brokers and web-brokers consistent with the standards described in this section for enrollment through the Exchange. Agents and brokers may assist individuals enrolling directly through the Exchange Web site and may serve as Navigators consistent with standards described in §155.210. We also afford Exchanges discretion to allow agents and brokers to use their own Web sites to assist individuals in completing the QHP selection process, as long as such a Web site conforms to the standards identified in §155.220(c)(3). While Exchanges that pursue this option would be able to leverage the market presence of web-brokers in drawing consumers to the Exchange and QHPs, we note that the Exchanges will also have to share data and coordinate closely with such entities.