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10 million Americans sought help to enroll in Obamacare

| Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 10:54 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Bob Nelson of the Robert Nelson Agency meets with a client in his insurance office on Thursday, July 17, 2014.

Bob Nelson's business surged earlier this year when people scrambled to find health coverage to comply with the Affordable Care Act.

Even though uninsured consumers could go online and buy a health plan through a government website without professional help, hundreds came to see Nelson, an Ambridge insurance broker.

“It's hard to believe that I sold more insurance in six months than I did in five years,” said Nelson, referring to the October-March open enrollment period on Healthcare.gov.

His agency enrolled about 200 people in health plans through the marketplace and sold 300 to 400 plans to people directly from an insurance carrier. Nelson said during peak sign-up periods, in December and March, he was seeing a customer every hour, eight hours a day, six days a week.

Unlike the advent of consumer-friendly shopping sites like Amazon or the myriad airline ticket sites, uninsured people didn't cut out the middle man when looking for health coverage because they needed help figuring out what plan was best for them, brokers said.

“It's not like going to Expedia or Travelocity,” Nelson said. “It's the first time ever (customers) are doing this, and (they) don't understand the terms.”

And technical problems with the website during its launch in October and November sent consumers searching for assistance.

While the complexities of health insurance may have boosted sales for some brokers, many got out of the business last year figuring they won't be able to compete with Healthcare.gov.

“Many of our members have discontinued selling individual health because of the Affordable Care Act, and only write group health these days,” said Karen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Agents & Brokers Service Group, which represents 1,400 agencies in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Bob Fink, owner of Fink Agency in Wilkins, said his agency also experienced a spike in customers because people wanted help enrolling in plans.

“There's always going to be a certain number who go online,” he said. “But there's always those who want help from a broker.”

Consumer surveys back up what brokers said they experienced — many Americans were unprepared to make informed insurance decisions.

An August 2013 poll by the American Institute of CPAs found that a majority of adults were not able to correctly identify at least one of three common health insurance terms: premium, deductible and co-pay.

Unsure how to navigate Healthcare.gov or how to select a plan, many uninsured sought help from volunteer application counselors, government-paid navigators and brokers, who make commissions that are paid directly by the insurer.

An estimated 10.6 million Americans sought coverage during the six-month enrollment period, according to a report this month from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit California organization that researches health care issues.

In the 14 states that ran their own marketplaces, there were about twice as many counselors and navigators available per 10,000 uninsured, compared with the 36 states, including Pennsylvania, that relied on the federal exchange, the Kaiser report states.

With a lack of navigators in the state — there were about a half-dozen covering Allegheny County — many turned to brokers looking for free advice, said Carol D'Alessandro, owner of D'Alessandro & Associates, a Mt. Lebanon brokerage.

D'Alessandro's office was inundated with phone calls from consumers asking questions about how to navigate the online marketplace, she said. It took too much time away from paying clients.

“I finally had to start turning people away,” she said.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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