The managers of HealthCare.gov are proceeding on the assumption that they’ll still have a Web-based health insurer supermarket to run, and health insurance products to sell, for the 2017 plan year.

Kevin Counihan, the head of the Affordable Care Act exchange program, today held a webinar to promote the agent and broker registration and training period for the fourth annual ACA open enrollment period. 

Counihan’s agency, the Center for Consumer Information & Insurance Oversight, has also been posting 2017 registration and training materials on the Web.

The insurance oversight office is part of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which, in turn, is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The insurance oversight office oversees all ACA public health insurance exchange programs. The agency runs the day-to-day operations for all states that use the HHS HealthCare.gov system to handle exchange plan enrollment.

The exchange system opened for business in October 2013, and the first exchange plans sold took effect Jan. 1, 2014.

Regulators, exchange plan managers and insurers developed an open enrollment period system, or limits on when consumers can buy ordinary individual major medical coverage without showing they have what the government views as a good reason to be shopping for health coverage, to try to keep people from using the ACA ban on medical underwriting as an invitation to pay premiums only when they get sick.

The fourth open enrollment period is set to start Nov. 1 and last until Jan. 31.

CMS insurance oversight office officials have emphasized from the beginning that they see agents and brokers as being critical to the success of the ACA exchange program, especially in the small-group market.

Related: CCIIO: Producers critical to small-group exchanges

Last year, officials said HealthCare.gov ended its second open enrollment period with 77,600 registered agents. It’s not clear how many registered agents HealthCare.gov has today.

Producers say HealthCare.gov technology has improved a great deal since the first ACA open enrollment period, but they continue to complain about problems with getting information out of exchange managers, keeping themselves attached to their exchange plan clients’ cases, and uncertainty about whether insurers will continue to want to sell individual health plans under ACA rules.

Related: 3 ways Aetna just shook the ACA’s foundations

At the recent Health Agents for America meeting in New Orleans, for example, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), said he thinks officials at CMS and other players in the ACA system have no interest in the welfare of agents and brokers and do want to squeeze them out.

For a look at some of what Counihan said today, and what the CMS insurance oversight office has been posting, read on.

HealthCare.gov thank you

Counihan tried to convey the idea that CMS really does want to work with agents and brokers. (Image: CMS)

1. Thank you.

Counihan said repeatedly that producers are welcome at HealthCare.gov, and that everyone at CMS appreciates the hard work they’ve been doing. 

Related: HealthCare.gov 2017: What about marketing money?

Enrollment

Counihan confirmed that HealthCare.gov has followed a path than many Web-based insurance supermarkets have taken before. (Image: Allison Bell/LHP)

2. Agents and brokers accounted for about half of HealthCare.gov’s 2016 exchange plan enrollments.

Managers of many state-based exchanges post detailed exchange plan activity reports. HealthCare.gov managers do not publish that kind of information.

Counihan said during the webinar, however, that producers accounted for about half of HealthCare.gov’s enrollment activity last year.

In the past, organizers of many other Web-based insurance and financial services supermarkets have tried to maximize use of digital sales systems but ended up making heavy use of live-human agents.

Related: The Web can enhance the role of the middleman 

Myth (Image: CMS)

There are limits on how much CMS will do to make producers feel at home. (Image: CMS)

3. Producers who registered to sell HealthCare.gov exchange plans in 2016 have to re-register to get paid to sell exchange plans for 2017.

Exchange agents who are re-registering can go through a simpler process, but, to get paid for 2017 sales, they have to go through a formal 2017 training and re-registration process, according to a CMS insurance oversight office guide for producers.

Last year, three organizations offered agent training.

This year, only the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Health Underwriters and the Washington, D.C.-based America’s Health Insurance Plans are offering private agent training programs.

HealthCare.gov’s own agent training program is free. The NAHU and AHIP programs cost money but offer continuing education credits in at least some states, officials say.

Related: How the PPACA exchange program still infuriates agents

Image: Bram Janssens/Hemera

Counihan said CMS will try to put all of an agent’s HealthCare.gov registration information in one place. (Image: Bram Janssens/Hemera)

4. CMS will try to present producers’ HealthCare.gov registration information in a format that’s easier for producers to monitor.

Some agents may be registered with HealthCare.gov for multiple years. This year, CMS will try to put status information for all of an agent’s plan-year registrations in one place, so agents can see whether they have a problem with any of the registrations, Counihan said during the webinar.

Related: 7 views on the ACA upheaval, from New Orleans

Image: Thinkstock

Counihan said CMS is focusing on keeping producers’ National Producer Numbers attached to exchange user clients’ applications. (Image: Thinkstock)

5. CMS will try to do a better job of helping producers stay associated with their clients’ accounts.

Today, many agents are emailing Health Agents for America about ongoing problems with getting HealthCare.gov, or HealthCare.gov issuers, to keep the National Producer Numbers of exchange agents attached to exchange plan users’ “applications,” or online files.

Some agents have speculated that HealthCare.gov customer service representatives have been consciously trying to cut producers’ NPNs from the exchange users’ applications.

When a producer’s NPN is deleted from an application, the producer may have no way to get paid for making a sale, or even to help a consumer with coverage problems.

Counihan said the exchange program, which he calls “the Marketplace,” has heard producers’ complaints.

CMS has updated the exchange systems to make sure “your NPN is noted in, and accurately retained, on consumers’ Marketplace applications,” Counihan said.

Related:

HealthCare.gov wants Web brokers’ names on all printout pages

4 tales from the ACA agent misery files

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