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Health Exchanges and Independent Agents

I am hearing and reading so much lately from the health insurance agent community about the future of agents under healthcare reform. Specifically as relates to the health insurance exchanges set for 2014. A minority believe that independent agents will have a place in the system while a majority, it seems, are suffering from "Chicken Little Syndrome". Truthfully, no one knows yet what place independent health agents will have in the new system. I do have some thoughts.

For those who know me and my business, I write a lot of HIPAA. HIPAA is guaranteed-issue health insurance, available kind of on an exchange (pick from available carriers and plans) and has no underwriting or medical screening component. Somewhat similar to the future exchanges (if you can get information which is generally only available on web sites like mine).

One would think that with the fairly small choice of guaranteed-issue plans (perhaps 25 at most in California) and fairly similar plan designs (HMO are similar and PPO/POS are similiar in deductible and general benefits) that choosing a HIPAA plan would be easy. Honestly, for every 10 people I help enroll under HIPAA, at least 9 of them need help in determining the most appropriate carrier and plan for their needs. And that is a good thing. Getting a coverage plan is important. Getting the best fit for coverage is more important.

There are a variety of factors that come into play during proper case development. Plan design and usage limitations are one area. Plan benefits and any exclusions or limitations is another. Then there is the network of participating providers and the prescription drug formulary to consider. All of these things before we really even look at the price of the plan. These services are easily and readily provided by independent agents who can compare multiple carriers and plans. The other option would be to call each carrier and then try to put it all together yourself. One of the problems with calling a carrier is...they only know their own plan. For example:

Blue Cross of California originated a plan in California called RightPlan PPO. It was the first no deductible non-maternity individuals-only PPO in California. It was subsequently copied by several other carriers and duplicated in their respective plan portfolios. Health Net has SimpleValue PPO (copy) and Blue Shield has ActiveStart PPO (copy).

Under the current market, you could call Anthem Blue Cross about the RightPlan PPO but they are not equipped to compare it against SimpleValue or ActiveStart. Each carrier only knows their own plans. You'd end up having to call three carriers, get whatever information you think is important, put it all together and try to decide which clone plan would work best. Or you could call an independent agent (for free by the way, there is no cost to have an agent) who can run that scenario for you.

Fast forward to the health insurance exchanges. Like HIPAA, the plans will all be similar but, like HIPAA, there will be differences between each insurance company's plans (network, formulary, benefits, tiers of drug coverage and so on).

Let's assume hypothetically that six companies in California offer plans to the exchange. The plans will be denoted as Gold, Silver, Bronze and Platinum. Benefit levels will be determined by mandates in the healthcare reform law. Seems simple enough, right?

Well, what if you take six medications and one of them is not in any drug formulary for the exchange plans? Which plans have tier 3 drug coverage and which don't. Are there restrictions on tier 3 benefits? How do I search their drug formulary? Are my doctors participating with this carrier's Gold plan? How about hospitals? Do the networks differ between Gold, Silver, Bronze and Platinum? Does this plan cover me locally only or can I use it in-network when I travel? Is this an HMO Gold, PPO Gold or POS Gold? What's the difference?

Needless to say, this list could go on forever.

Another factor that I believe may come into play are deviations from basic design. With Medicare Supplement plans, there are some carriers who offer the Medicare mandated benefits but also create enhanced plans with other options above the Medicare minimum standard. Could we see this in the exchange as well? I believe it is very possible. So instead of six carriers offer six Gold plans, you might see something like this:

Carrier A - Gold
Carrier B - Gold, Gold Preferred, Gold Plus, Gold Enhanced
Carrier C - Gold, Gold Preferred
Carrier D - Gold, Gold Select
Carrier E - Gold, Gold Select
Carrier F - Gold, Gold HMO

Gold = Standard Gold design based on reform rules for plan minimum standard
Gold Select = Gold plan benefits with a select network of providers (smaller)
Gold Preferred = Gold plan health benefits plus a long-term care rider
Gold Plus = Gold plan benefits with a dental HMO plan
Gold Enhanced = Gold Plus plan design (with dental) plus additional vision and chiropractic coverage
Gold HMO = HMO plan adhering to Gold plan design rules

Under this scenario, as many as 13 Gold plans could be available (or more, or less) from the six insurance companies. It could get really confusing really quickly. And what if they do the same with Silver and Bronze? Or Platinum?

The bottom line is that a person should not have to match their medical needs to a health plan. All of my case development for HIPAA plans is directed at matching the plan to meet the medical needs, not the other way around. While no plan is always absolutely perfect, good case development should find the one plan that, given overall medical needs, is the "best" fit for each client.

I would think, given these variables, that the role of the independent agent would be extremely important in matching people's medical needs with the appropriate health plan, whether through the exchange or privately outside of the exchange.

Certainly the states, or insurance companies, or federal government could set up "call centers" staffed by non-agents who would be available to review coverage options and answer questions. Would it be less expensive? Probably not. But more to the point, there comes a time in this business when experienced, veteran independent agents really get a feel for the way certain insurance companies operate with regard to networks, formulary and benefits. I have found that EOC (Evidence of Coverage) booklets are often sorely lacking in certain areas when it comes to benefit utilization or the way a claim is "really" processed. Just because something is written in a booklet or spreadsheet or benefit summary does not mean that is exactly how it works, or in all situations.

We learn from experience. I write mostly HIPAA. Claims for HIPAA tend to be much greater and much more varied than underwritten coverage. That is the nature of guaranteed-issue coverage. I have seen situations which absolutely contradict what was written in the benefit summary, spreadsheet or EOC. I have also learned over the years many of the little nuances of the plans and insurance carriers that can be very critical when a prospective client brings their medical needs to me.

I hope that our leadership understands the value that we independent health agents provide.

On a side note:

I was a bit saddened to read an article recently in an industry publication in which President Obama told a health agent who expressed concern about her career that she was "the one who has to tell her clients about the insurance company's rate increase". While that is part of our job, I'd like to think we do a bit more than just pass on rate increase information. I certainly hope this is not how our leadership sees us and perceives our value to our clients.

I don't always have time to tell people about rate increases since the carrier will tell them anyway. I am often quite busy running drug formularies, trying to find which network doctor X is actually in and trying to help my clients get the plan that will best cover their immediate needs like chemotherapy, heart surgery, infusion therapy, transplant surgery or self-injectible life saving medication.


  1. Well said Dave. Your insight is right on the always.

    Let's hope that those in government realize the importance of brokers when 2014 arrives.

  2. Do you think most (or a lot) of people will pay a consulting fee out of their own pocket to an agent (or someone) to help them pick a plan?

    Assuming a high loss-ratio and carriers decide to end the agent distribution system in favor of direct mail or web-site sales, is there a business model for the agent-consultant to make a living recommending health plans?

    I don't think so. Fewer people use full-service stock brokers these days and how many travel agents are still in business on a fee basis?

    It is easy to compute the dollar value we bring to the carrier. Can you easily put a dollar value on what we bring to the client?


  3. I would think that some compensation would be built into the system, either initially or over time.

    There is precedent in California for this with HIPC/PacAdvantage.

    Originally HIPC did not include agent compensation. Something like 80% of employers chose to comp for agent assistance at expense. HIPC realized that people were going to want professional assistance and re-designed HIPC with a commission build-in.

    With HIPAA, I am frequently asked what my fee will be to help people enroll. When they find out is is zero cost, they are very happy. However, these people came into the situation assuming they would have to pay me a fee, but still wanted help anyway.

    Ehealth is a great example. When you run quotes there you get something like 166 plan options. No Smartquote feature to narrow it down. They want you to call them once you have seen 166 plan choices. Many people defer to other agents because they wanted an online quote without having to call someone. When they realize the overwhelming choices, they also decide often just to call someone else. I get a lot of health business FROM ehealthinsurance.

    People can research and buy MA/MAPD plans online direct, but most don't. There will always be some people who want to avoid either a conceived extra cost or get some help. Most people understand in a GI environment that they need help picking the most appropriate choice and that help may or may not be free.

    What could be worse than trying to outsmart the system only to find that none of your providers are in-network, some of your meds aren't covered and the plan you bought is exactly the wrong plan for your medical needs? Happens with MA/MAPD frequently (I know, I used to get the calls during OEPs).

    Some people buy direct from the carriers now. They might think they are saving money on premium, but we know they are not. Those people will always be a part of the system, the do-it-yourselfers. That is fine.

  4. Good insight as always, Dave. You always have good insight into our industry and related fields.

    You pointed out an Obama quote I had not heard about agent's roles being to inform clients about rate increases.

    That differs considerably from "if you earn less than $250,000 your taxes will not go up".

    He was wrong on that front as well . . .


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