A Consumer Help File for HealthCare.gov

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By Janet Trautwein

Federal officials recently unveiled a key component of the health reform package — a website called HealthCare.gov.

The site aims to be a one-stop shop for health care information, briefing Americans on the insurance options available to them — as well as the new law’s benefits. But it won’t meet that goal unless it guarantees consumers access to licensed health insurance agents and brokers.

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A mind-boggling amount of information is available on the website, including details on government-sponsored programs and plans from over a thousand private insurers.

Unfortunately, the government isn’t helping consumers make sense of all that new information.

That’s where professional health insurance agents and brokers come in.

The insurance marketplace has grown incredibly complicated, and the new law will only add to the confusion. Agents and brokers can help people navigate the dizzying array of options and find the health plan that suits their needs.

Some agents even function as virtual human resources departments for small businesses. As the Congressional Budget Office put it, agents and brokers often “handle the responsibilities that larger firms generally delegate to their human resources departments — such as finding plans and negotiating premiums, providing information about the selected plans, and processing enrollees.”

The individuals and businesses that rely on agents are overwhelmingly happy with the service they receive. A survey commissioned by IBM found that three-quarters of those interviewed were very satisfied with their agents’ work.

Another survey, conducted by Assurant Health, found that 64 percent of consumers who purchased individual medical insurance through a professional agent found their experiences “helpful.”

Some argue that the government could provide these services more effectively and at lower cost. But the federal government has a poor track record in this regard.

Consider the federal 1-800-MEDICARE call center. A Senate investigation found that consumers waited up to an hour to speak with someone during peak call times. Customer service representatives spoke from scripts littered with errors and jargon. Worst of all, callers often received incorrect information.

Consumers deserve the best information available when shopping for something as important as health insurance. The government’s new web portal can certainly help in that effort. But this new initiative will be incomplete without including access to licensed insurance agents and brokers — the very experts who can help Americans make sense of an ever-more complicated insurance marketplace.

Janet Trautwein is CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters.


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