Insurance agents feeling left out of 'Obamacare'

Some are calling on Obama administration to allow them to bypass and enroll consumers directly
Associated Press
Dec 9, 2013

When insurance agent Kelly Fristoe recently spent 30 minutes helping a client pick a mid-level health plan and the federal marketplace website froze, he called the government's hotline and tried to finish the application. But the operator refused to credit Fristoe as an agent on the application, meaning he wouldn't get the commission or be listed as the follow-up contact if his client needed help again later.

The Wichita Falls, Texas, insurance agent is one of many brokers around the country finding frustration as they try to help customers navigate the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces while earning the commissions they've long built their businesses around. Some insurers and insurance agents are calling on President Barack Obama's administration to allow them to bypass and enroll consumers directly amid growing complaints about problems with enrollment information generated from the website.

The so-called 'back-end' problems could mean that consumers who think they've successfully signed up for a health plan, may find themselves unable to access their coverage come January. The problems include enrollment information that's rendered practically useless by errors, duplication or garbles. Efforts to fix the issues are underway.

Nearly 70,000 agents and brokers have been certified nationwide to sell health insurance on the federal exchange. Many say they could be the troubled health law's best ambassadors with the potential to boost lackluster enrollment figures — only about 27,000 had enrolled via the federal website nationwide in the first month. But instead, many agents said they're continually met by obstacles.

"You look at this dismal number they have of how many people have enrolled on," said Fristoe. "If they would just relax and loosen up, because me and all of my associates across this nation want to help these consumers get enrolled into the market."

Federal health officials announced on Nov. 22 that they'd fixed some portions of the website to allow more insurers and insurance agents to enroll consumers directly. The feds are asking roughly 16 insurers, agents and brokers in Florida, Texas and Ohio to test it out and give detailed feedback about the fixes, hoping to expand it to other states in the coming weeks. Health officials have been vague about the scope of the botched applications insurers are receiving and what steps they're taking to fix the problems. One bug related to Social Security numbers, which federal health officials said accounted for more than 80 percent of insurers' problems, was fixed last weekend.

But the problems have persisted, prompting the head of the National Association of Health Underwriters to write the president Tuesday, urging him to make additional fixes a priority, saying agents have a significant backlog of clients with incomplete applications.

"We want to make it clear that a number of back-end technical obstacles still exist for health insurance agents and brokers trying to actively support the federal marketplace," said CEO Janet Trautwein.

Insurance industry executives also met with Obama last month and encouraged him to let them take a more active role in enrolling consumers in the 36 states relying on the federal website. Brokers' frustrations with the website are amplified by the pressure they face to add customers to offset reductions in their commissions under the law.

Among the complaints, agents say the website isn't always crediting brokers when they help enroll consumers — meaning they're losing out on commissions. Once an application is started, consumers can't go back in and add a broker's name if they help midway through the process. Federal health officials said there are 975,000 customers who have started an application but not selected a plan.

Agents say they're also still waiting on the federal government to add a promised feature on the website that would easily connect consumers with local insurance brokers.

Insurers and insurance agents are allowed to sign consumers up for health plans through a "direct enrollment" process. Even though the process may start on the insurer's website, at some point it's redirected to the technology-plagued website to determine if customers are eligible for subsidies, and then ideally transferred back to the insurer's site. But various points in the process have been mired in glitches. Federal health officials said they've fixed some of the problems, but skeptics fear the improvements still won't allow for a smooth shopping experience and are pushing for a way to bypass the website.

Brokers face similar problems in some of the states that are running their own exchanges, such as Oregon. It's easy for insurers to enroll customers who want a health plan and don't qualify for a subsidy. The trouble comes when insurers and agents need to sync to federal data hubs to verify income, citizenship and other personal information. Democratic Florida state Rep. Richard Stark, who is also an insurance agent, said many of his clients have received inaccurate subsidy estimates from the federal government for clients. For example, a client with twin children was told one is eligible for a subsidy, but not the other.

Like others stymied by website malfunctions, Ken Statz and other agents at his firm in Brecksville, Ohio, filled out paper applications and mailed them, but it was taking time to hear back from the federal government about whether clients are eligible for a subsidy. Then they tried to get creative, planning to fill out the applications with clients during the day and hire someone to input the information into during off-hours after 11 p.m. But that didn't work either because the site asks personal identification questions that only the user would know.

"We don't have a clear pathway to get them enrolled into the plan. (The federal government) hasn't given us the ability to do that. They're kind of missing the mark on this. They need to realize that we are the best pathway," he said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, recently sent a letter to federal health officials urging them to fix the barriers hampering brokers and possibly create a way to bypass the site. She suggested a dedicated call-center line or mailing locations for paper applications.

Stark has noticed a chilly reception toward his industry when he's attended local outreach organizations on the health overhaul.

"They basically didn't want to work with insurance agents because they felt agents were going to steer a customer toward (a plan) where they think they will make the most money," said Stark. "If I steer someone incorrectly to a plan that doesn't meet their needs, there's a lot of hell to pay as an agent."

Navigators will likely be gone when enrollment ends in March. That's why Statz said it's important for federal health officials to empower agents to "help people now, but help them make decisions on their accounts moving forward."



John Harville

47 straight months of economic growth. Thank Obama and the Democrats.

Unemployment at 7%, lowest in five years. Thank Obama and the Democrats.

Deficit half that inherited from Shrub and the Republicans. Thank Obama and Democrats.

200,000 more private sector jobs created. Thank Obama and Democrats.

Paying lower deductibles. Thank Obama and the Democrats.

Forced to buy coverage you don't need. Thank Social Security and Medicare.

Forced to spew misinformation through that exit used as an entrance. Thank the Tea Party and Republicans.


I have done this before. Obama tripled Bush's last deficit and now has halved it leaving it 50% higher than Bush left it. 2014 projections show it to go up.


The 2009 budget wasn't signed until March 11 2009. Signed by Obama. Obama signed it, it is Obama;s budget if he didn't like it he could have vetoed it. He signs it it is his budget. Ay the time he had a supermajority in the Senate, and a majority in the House. He could have had them redo it however he wanted. He didn't need a single repube vote for it to pass. Bush had a dim controlled Congress starting in 07. It was up to the dims to get a budget for 2009 passed.
The final spending bills for the budget were not signed into law until March 11, 2009 by President Barack Obama, nearly five and a half months after the fiscal year began.


Re: "47 straight months of economic growth. Thank Obama and the Democrats."

Thank the Federal Resv.


Defer, deflect, deny. Really? That has been the GOP mantra for 5 years now, hasn't it? You guys still get your knickers in a bunch every time we bring up Bush - which of course, we will continue to do, every time you blame Obama for problems Bush caused.

For the best example of collapsing the economy, check out 2006-2008. Apparently, you were off the planet during the worst economic disaster America has seen since the early 1930's.

You can diss the Affordable Care Act all you wish, at this early juncture. I think we all know it's silly to call anything a "train wreck" when it's only barely left the station. Call me back in a year or two, when it gets humming. Jeez, you Republicans are a grumpy bunch. I kinda feel sorry for you, actually.... We Dems tend to be an optimistic bunch here in 2013, having lived through 2008, you know?


Re: "2006,"

"2006"? Economy 'still' humming along.

The Dems took control of Congress in 2007 and THEN the SHTF.

As previously noted, numbers and history ain't your strong suits are they?

Repeatedly asked: What the h*ll did you 'supposedly' teach?

Finger painting, basket weaving?


coasterfan Re."the worst economic disaster America has seen since the early 1930's"

Were you sleeping during the Carter years you know "double digit Jimmy"

He left us with double digit unemployment higher than what Bush left us with, double digit inflation and double digit interest rates making a rebound that much harder for persons to buy homes autos and other items. My brother had a SBA loan for his business the interest rate was 3 points above prime. When the prime rate hit above 20% needless to say he lost his business. With the interest rates what they are now I cannot figure how the current administration can keep the economy so dismal.

Darwin's choice

Spin obamabot spin!!

What do you call a president who


Signs laws passed by congress, and then keeps changing them until they do not represent the law that was passed by congress?



Re: "we held another election in 2012,"

Why'd ya skip over the mid-term elections of 2010 where the Dems, after on a totally partisan vote, shoved Obama☭are down the throats of the American people & lost the House of Reps.?

The Dems purposefully didn't craft a budget deal because the bloodbath would have been even worse!


Angry? Why not stop whining about Obama and find a candidate that the American people might find worth electing? I'm not impressed by a party whose only talent is to complain and vote NO, and one that has no new/good ideas of its own. We're still waiting for the Republican alternative to Obamacare, aren't we? Take a Prozac, dude...


REALLY and chase with a gallon of your favorite spirit. Careful now, don't swallow the paint brushes!


Re: "find a candidate that the American people might find worth electing?"

You mean like if only the Repubs could find a candidate who would promise billions MORE in borrowing, taxing, printing and spending than the Dems in order to buy votes?


More sour grapes. As if Republicans don't buy votes by pandering to dozens of special interest groups. It just doesn't work for your party, because your candidates say and do so many gosh awful things to/about minorities, women, gays, the poor and middle class. So, when it comes to election time, the above folks don't believe that your candidates will help them.

And they would be right. As usual, you Repubicans do a good job of pointing out perceived weaknesses in your opponents, but are blissfully unaware of your own party's Achilles heels, and offer ZERO solutions for fixing any of the problems you see. Obamacare, as we all know, happened in 2009 because the GOP did nothing to solve an untenable health care issue during 2000-2008.


Re: "Obamacare, as we all know, happened in 2009"

Maybe YOU "know," 2009, but I "know" 2010.


Dr. Information

Did you read that post. coaster said he makes decisions on his own. Hardly the case. Here is the result of one working for a union for years where they are brainwashed that if there is a problem in the work field, just throw more taxpayer money at it, that will fix it.

How's America's education system coasterfan after decades of throwing more money at the schools all the way from the federal level down to the local level? If you haven't read lately, it ain't working.


Interesting. You seem to suggest that minorities, women, gays, and the poor are too stupid, too incompetent, too lazy, or too SOMEthing to possibly manage without help from a benevolent Uncle Sam.

And you call REPUBLICANS discriminatory!

John Harville

MIDTERM 2010.... JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! the failed Republican mantra.

The House will turn in 2014.


What good is the house turning in 2014, which I highly doubt, when the senate will turn in 2014


Jeez, I hope so. You are right about them being job killers. Millions of jobs lost, thanks to Bush, and their economic policies have continued to slow job growth during the Obama term in office. Not my opinion; just repeating what I've read from Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, over the past year.


Re: "The House will turn in 2014."

Good luck with that fantasy.

People tend to vote their pocketbook and the employer mandates will be kicking in around the 2014 election and employers will be laying off employees and dumping health plans.


The Repubs retain the House and take control of the Senate (20 Dems are up for re-election) and Pres. Obama becomes a TRUE lame duck for the remainder of his term.

Dr. Information

Odds are Contango is right. After years of poor leadership from the left in Ohio and JOBs JOBS JOBS leaving OH, Kasich is doing a good job retaining what we have. Remember Kasich was elected in 2011. By the left's own standards, he hasn't been given enough time to fix things. Can't have it both ways lefties.

White Owl

Who is supposed to pay for the added services of Insurance Agents and Brokers? Part of the problem with the existing medical insurance industry is the multiple plans offered by profit seeking insurance companies and their agents. In fact many insurance companies get paid more to process certain claims than the medical professionals who provide the actual services.

The only truly fair system is a one payor system with standard benefits available to all Americans whether public or privately employed funded by employers similar to the Medicare system. That basic coverage should provide the safety net and wellness coverage and if you want luxury coverage above and beyond it you pay for it out of pocket or by increased premiums.

It's ridiculous how plans pay for unnecessary luxuries like male sexual performance drugs but the working poor can not receive decent coverage.


Be careful what you wish for, I believe the ACA was planned to fail, so that those in DC can push us toward a single payor system. If it is such a great system, why do Canadians come to the US to have surgery?

White Owl

This is an intellectually dishonest argument. Canadians come to the US to have elective surgery, the kinds of surgery that are highly profitable. We as a country need to get past the idea that everyone is entitled to top of the line health care and stop spending over 50% of all health care dollars in the last 6 months of a person's life.

Everyone should have access to basic health care including wellness care, and beyond that a person pays for the extras. By going to one payor system, there will be enormous economies gained as medical providers will be able to streamline billing and spend time with patients rather than paperwork.

Another poster raised the issue of fraud and waste in Medicare. You don't think there's massive fraud and waste in private insurance programs and that these for profit companies aren't also making a lot of money on provision of services.

There are certain services that should not be profit making industries manipulated by insurance companies and the financial markets. Health care like religion is one of them.


Re: "massive fraud and waste in private insurance programs and that these for profit companies,"

Night and day.

Medicare and Medicaid practice what's called: Pay and chase.

Private cos. practice health care mgmt. They confirm and THEN pay.

A private co. would soon go bankrupt with the govt's losses and the officers would have been fired long before.

White Owl

Your comment is not based in reality. How many defense contractors have gone bankrupt? Private insurance companies need to make a profit to keep their shareholders happy, that profit margin (gained by overbilling their customers in premiums due to their exemption from antitrust which allows them to price fix while forcing low rates on providers) is much greater than any fraud in the system.

How about eliminating the insurance companies exemption from antitrust and allowing providers as a group to negotiate their reimbursements rates? No? Not a believer in free market forces for health care and believe massive insurance companies need that monopoly?

Again by moving to a one payor system with basic services including wellness coverage, you eliminate the billing nightmare for most providers, set reliable reimbursement rates and build a database that will readily expose fraud in the system.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

The system you suggest is itself a monopoly and unless I am misunderstanding you, in the same post you rail against similar (though not truly monopolistic) policies with private insurance companies. How is it not a billing nightmare when I as a patient or doctor have to argue against (not before) the government for money, service, recognition, or service? Reliable reimbursement does not equal fair nor standard reimbursement nor, I suspect, will it allow for what companies do with profit: research, philanthropy, employment, and investment.

As for the fraud? Why haven't the already-managed government health systems purged or exposed more of it? How, if they can't even handle what minor part of the population they already control, can they be expected to somehow expose more (as a percentage) fraud when over three hundred and ten million people are being tracked in this central database?

Also you should know that not all insurance companies are for profit. And if some do make a profit, what do they do with it? What you suggest (and your posts have been, in my opinion, intelligently presented and I mean that as a compliment) isn't a magic bullet for premium prices and certainly nothing in the ACA has helped except in small circumstances that seem to be a cut the nose to spit the face scenarios.

I will happily consider a government-run single payer system when other aspects of our government are run to how you rightfully hope they will be with your post. Not just ours, but other countries' who already have a central authority dictating what their citizens are allowed to have. Your trust in distant, unelected, unknowable entities who will only look at and consider you as nothing more than statistics on a padded report is admirable but misplaced in my opinion.

If you want to help lower insurance premiums there are many other ways to do so including tort reform. Has that been implemented? What if more people were aware at how relatively easy it is (was due to ACA?) to buy group policies through various associations? Many of these basic services you speak of are offered for free or very inexpensively through county and other health services including charities. Some (if not many) private medical practices will themselves offer free or reduced rate procedures or can help patients with special billing or charity outreach.

Until we have tried other methods, until the same efficiencies you hope for are reached with what government already manages, I don't see how giving up that much power over our very lives, to be rationed and seen as a statistic on a report, is a better option. Despite my protests, you have my appreciation for presenting your arguments better than many others on here.


Excellent post, Owl. A single-payer, Medicare-like system is what Dems wanted in the first place. It works in other developed countries, and it would work here. Republicans, of course, would rather us stick with the previous system, in which 30 million were uninsured and the rest of us subsidized their ER visits for common cold symptoms, via higher premiums. You DO know that the uninsured cost each of us many hundreds of extra $$$ each year out of pocket, right?

See, that's the OTHER half of the story that Fox never mentions. They are really good at what they do, but it absolutely is NOT unbiased reporting. If their story is all you ever hear, it's very convincing...


Here is a comparrison of news between MSNBC CNN and Fox.

It depends on what programs you watch on any of the cable channels. If you watch the talking heads and not the news shows...

You need to look at a variety of news sources, fox, cnn, and msnbc included. You notice how some folks only vilify one network... The one who leans the "other" way from how they do, while not mentioning the one who leans far more than the one they complain about. Take that into consideration when you read their complaints about one network. Notice that some people actually back up their views with studies, while others are just stating their opinions... with no backup information.


Here is the news continuum:
Extreme Left: MSNBC
Middle: CNN
Extreme Right: Fox

If you don't see it that way, it's because you are so far to one end of the spectrum that you have lost all frame of reference. If you've ever called anyone a RINO, you just proved my point (when you think mainstream Republicans are "too far" left, guess what: it's not they who changed their ideology, it's you).


RE: "If you don't see it that way,"

It means that they don't agree with your opinion. I have yet to see you criticize MSNBC, CNN, NPR or any other network. I guess that means you are fair and balanced, right? I guess that means you get your news from the Daily show, on the comic/cartoon channel? Many of your "facts" that you never seem to link for backup, seem to point that way.

It has been decades since I was republican or thought that "mainstream: republicans were correct, and decades since I voted for a republican for president, as I have stated numerous times. I don't expect you to remember that, after all we have seen your ability to process information.