A witch, Darth Vader, and the Blues Brothers walk into a bar….and that’s no joke. About 40 health insurance brokers and agency heads -- many dressed in costume – recently turned out for a Halloween-themed event at a Cleveland brewery to share their fears over the Affordable Care Act. Ideastream’s Brian Bull attended the event, and produced this report.
At the Market Garden Brewery on Cleveland’s West Side, members of the Northeast Ohio Health Underwriters Association (NEOHUA) take in drinks and finger food as Tom Campanella opens his presentation - titled, appropriately for Halloween,“Surviving Scary Economics – What happens after the Affordable Care Act”?
Campanella -- who’s not in costume -- is a professor at Baldwin Wallace University, and the director of its Health Care MBA program.
“You may agree or disagree with some of the things I’m saying," begins Campanella, as the last of the audience members sits down. "And I think we need to be able to have that sorta freeflowing discussion….”
Many of these insurance brokers and agents take a dim view of the Affordable Care Act.
Joe Blasko -- who’s decked out as Darth Vader -- is President of both NEOHUA and the Frank Insurance Agency in Middlefield. After Campanella’s talk, Blasko told me his beef with Obamacare begins with the now infamous website, healthcare.gov.
“People can’t get onto it, they can’t get official subsidy values, so it’s hard for people to really move forward."
But, Blasko’s dissatisfaction doesn’t end there. He thinks the government missed an opportunity for a smoother start.
"There’s a possibility for it to work, but I think the broker community who works with people buying these things have been kinda cut of out if a little bit? That’s shortsighted on the government side," Blasko says.
"The people who can help move this forward are the ones educating and have educated the populace on these products from the start.”
To that end, many brokers and agents are trying to orient themselves with the many coverage options the exchanges provide. But with the sites still in disarray, many – like independent agent Lori Lipton – feel that they’re on shaky ground and can’t slip up with those trying to sign themselves, their families, and businesses up for exchanges.
“My biggest concern is getting accurate pricing and advising clients correctly on whether to be either on or off the exchange, and what is going to be to their best benefit,” says Lipton.
The state Department of Insurance says there are more than 113,000 insurance agents qualified to sell health insurance in Ohio, though the number of those actively practicing is likely smaller.
J.B. Silvers, a professor of Healthcare Finance at Case Western Reserve’s Weatherhead School of Management, agrees that there’s cause for worry among those professionals.
“The exchanges and having all the companies readily available all online for fixed prices, community rates, means that a big chunk of what the brokers used to bring to the table is not going to be necessary anymore. It’s all there, all you have to do is go online to look at the possibilities. That will definitely take away from their business.”
Silvers says this can be less of a crisis and more of an opportunity for the industry to reinvent itself. Thomas Campanella agrees.
“It goes back to the travel agent in regards to booking flights and trips. As the Internet expanded, all of a sudden: “Do I need a travel agent?” So ultimately the ones that sort of evolve and find a way to provide value can be successful," says Campanella.
"But you gotta reinvent yourself with open eyes as to, “Where is the value needed, where is the market? And who can I help?” and sorta package yourself appropriately.”
And Wes Bissett, Senior Counsel for Government Affairs at the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, says there will be a growing need for experts to help people navigate the complex field of options online.
“If you’re an agent and you’re not providing any value then sure, having a website where a person can go and select a plan may have some impact. But…it sorta assumes that people are going to be able to come to the site, themselves, anyway," laughs Bissett.
"But setting aside issues with the technology and all the problems with rollout, it’s still a confusing process for many folks.”
If brokers need an example, Massachusetts is the place to look, says J.B. Silvers.
Its system of near-universal health care was largely a model for Obamacare, and Silvers says there are still professionals there who’ve survived the transition.
“And I think it’s because they still help small business with this complicated purchase problem they’ve got. If everybody goes onto individual exchanges, and the small business market goes away, then the game’s over. But as long as companies are still in the place, they’re going to need advisors.”
One more glimmer of hope: while the federal government has spent $67 million on so-called “navigators” to help people enroll in health care, they have also signed on five online brokers including eHealth, Getinsured, and GoHealth to do the same.
There may be more deals to come, meaning that if insurance brokers can learn the system under Obamacare, they might just stay in the game…and prosper.