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3 benefits sellers size up the market

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Reports are already circulating about glitches at the preview version of the new and improved exchange plan enrollment system.

Some of the websites of the surviving state-based exchanges are eerily quiet, and it might be that the silence is a sign of glitches to come.

Meanwhile, as the Nov. 15 start date of the second annual Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange system open enrollment period and professional all-star website wrestling season approaches, benefits professionals are suiting up.

Rone George, a benefits enroller and the chief executive officer of the Healthcare Awareness Foundation, is trying to attract business, and improve the enrollment process, by positioning himself as a national enrollment process improvement advocate.

Steve Auerbach, chief executive officer of Alegeus, a benefits administration firm, is hoping to use the holes left by PPACA, and ongoing increases in health care and health insurance costs, to boost sales of personal health account programs, such as health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending arrangements (FSAs).

Frank Saltzburg, an agent who serves the individual and small group markets at Healthcare Solutions Team, has gotten himself designated a Certified Health Care Reform Specialist, will be serving as a certified exchange agent, and serving consumers with a system that lets him compare public exchange and off-exchange plans side by side.

Here’s a look at what they’re saying about the fall benefits sales season. 

Piggy bank

1. The personal health account business looks great.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tweaked the much-loathed FSA use-it-or-lose-it rule to let consumers roll some unused account cash over at the end of the year.

The IRS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) may not love HSAs, but they keep adopting rules that let HSAs live, and many of the PPACA exchange plans themselves are, really, high-deductible health insurance plans.

At Alegeus, Auerbach says the future in the FSA, HSA and wellness program sectors look bright.

“Certainly, rising health care costs and the overall shift to consumer responsibility are driving up adoption in all of these categories,’ Auerbach says.

It’s too early to know how the new FSA rollover rules will affect the FSA universe, but “we see double-digit growth in enrollment and contributions from those that embrace it,” Auerbach says.

Similarly, PPACA changes, employer health benefits cost growth and the rise of the private health insurance exchanges are all driving up HSA adoption, Auerbach says.

See also: 5 big changes employers will make to health care plans in 2015


2. The need for trusted advisors who know what the heck they are talking about is greater than ever.

George says the events occurred during the first exchange open enrollment period show why consumers need help from qualified agents.

Last year, he says, too many unqualified enrollers were illegally filling out applications for consumers who had no understanding of the exchange application process.

This year, he says, “there are many unresolved website technical issues that are still persisting until this day. I have at least 30 percent of my business that couldn’t get past the verification point after all this time.”

Another trend he sees is tax preparers getting insurance licenses, so that they can get paid for helping consumers enroll in exchange plans.

“Many of them don’t understand the severity and reality of the industry that we career agents have thrived in for years,” George says.

George says agents have thrived, and will continue to thrive, because they understand coverage enrollment criteria and how to help consumers deal with health literacy barriers.

See also: 5 tax plans every financial advisor should know


3. Many agents and brokers think they have figured out how to play the exchange game.

Saltzburg has a computer system that he believes should help him cut the time consumers need to apply for exchange plans to about half an hour, from four to six hours last year. He’s also hoping the system will help him get paid in about four weeks.

Last year, he says, many exchange agents who got paid at all found that collecting the compensation owed took seven to eight months.

“This year, it will be a little bit better,” Saltzburg said.

He said he thinks one reason for improvement is that experienced agents and brokers will play a more active role, now that they have sat out the first painful open enrollment period and system managers have had time to fix some of the glitches.

Saltzburg also believes that this will be a year when many small employers will send employees either to the individual exchange system or a private exchange system. For many small employers, the cost of keeping a small group plan in place will double, he says.

“Small employers just don’t have that kind of money,” Saltzburg says.