Do HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell's people really want agents to re-register?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has set 2014 agent registrations for the public health insurance exchanges it runs to expire Sept. 30.

To sell qualified health plan (QHP) coverage through a exchange HHS runs in 2015, agents must go through the registration process or get re-registered by that date, or face the possibility of having a lapse in registration that could affect their ability to make sales, especially in the small-group market.

Exchange producers also must re-register if they want to help consumers sign up for coverage through special enrollment periods (SEPs) from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31. Managers of state-based exchanges can set different deadlines.

Mayra Alvarez, an official at the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO) — the arm of HHS in charge of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange program — said at a hearing Thursday that 79,000 agents and brokers trained to help consumers use the HHS-run exchanges for 2014. This year, many HHS and state-based exchanges have relied heavily on agents and brokers to overcome enrollment website technical problems.

CCIIO has taken a low-key approach to announcing the 2015 HHS exchange registration deadline, and producers are not talking about the registration process much. Some say the producers who want to stay in the individual health insurance market now understand the exchange system better and no longer need to talk as much about it and others say that many individual health agents have shifted to selling products other than major medical coverage.

In California, Neil Crosby, a vice president at the California Association of Health Underwriters (CAHU), said he sees some exchange agents who are tired of wrestling with exchange computer system and compensation system problems. But he also meets agents who sat out this year who want to try working with the exchange system next year. “It’s a mixed bag,” he said.

Ronnell Nolan, president of Health Agents for America, said she sees some 2014 exchange agents working to turn administrative lemons into lemonade, but that some national agencies have a strict policy of keeping their agents away from the exchanges.

“Some agents spent so much time last year trying to work within the system, many working for free at times, and are not going to attempt it again this year,” Nolan said.

She also said it’s frustrating to see HHS and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) — the HHS agency in charge of CCIIO — spend millions of dollars to try to teach navigators to sell insurance, while resisting taking even simple steps to help exchange agents, such as sending agents the e-mail newsletters the agencies send to navigators.

“It is hard to motivate people who are obviously being shut out from the business they have been working in for many years,” Nolan said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article described the Sept. 30 deadline incorrectly. Exchange agents must register or re-register by that date or face having a loss of their ability to write new exchange plan coverage until they re-register.