Zenefits’ Agents Should Be in NAHU

Zenefits is enrolling hundreds of their in-house agents with the National Association of Health Underwriters and some NAHU members are freaking out. They shouldn’t.

At the end of the day, Zenefits engagement with the association will benefit both the company and NAHU’s membership. After all, the purpose of any professional organization is not to become best buds with your competitors (although that often happens in NAHU). The purpose is to work together on common issues toward shared goals in an ethical manner. So long as Zenefits and their employee-agents share the goals of NAHU and act with integrity they should be members.

A Fan of NAHU, Not Zenefits

I’ve been active in NAHU for over 25 years. I’ve served as president of my state chapter and the National organization. Currently I’m president of my local chapter. I’ve testified on NAHU’s behalf before Congress and helped lead the association’s legislative efforts nationally and in California. I’ve even helped rewrite the national and state associations’ by-laws. (Now that’s commitment … and boring as hell).

I say this not to brag (or complain), but to demonstrate that I care deeply about NAHU, its mission, purpose and, above all, its members. I’m a fan of NAHU. If I thought the association was in danger, I’d be among the first at the barricades. However, having Zenefits’ in-house agents in NAHU is no danger.

To be clear, I am not a Zenefits fan. I’ve made this clear repeatedly and will continue to do so. I consider the way Zenefits’ leadership talks about what they call “traditional agents” as arrogant and wrong. I don’t like their business model or some of their practices. And I do more than criticize Zenefits. I’m co-founder of Take 44, a start-up bringing NextAgency to brokers. NextAgency does many things, but for purposes of this post it’s most salient feature is helping community-based agents beat Zenefits and its ilk in the marketplace.

Even though I don’t like Zenefits, I’m pleased Zenefits’ in-house agents are joining NAHU. I believe the result will be positive for Zenefits and, more importantly, for NAHU members.

Wins All Around

Zenefits will gain credibility when they publicize that their in-house agents are members of the nation’s preeminent organization for benefit professionals. However, that means Zenefits will be widely promoting the reality that working with NAHU members is good for consumers—a message benefiting all NAHU members.

Some of Zenefits’ agents will attend NAHU meetings and participate in the association’s outstanding educational programs. There they’ll meet hundreds of professional, experienced brokers providing real and substantial value to their clients. They’ll understand that there’s more to being a worthy health insurance agent than simply delivering HR and benefits software. (Although there’s nothing wrong with delivering HR and benefits software, he wrote while wearing his NextAgency hat). What they learn may make them better agents and that’s good for their clients and for the profession. Bad agents hurt everyone, including good ones.

The dues from Zenefits is the least important benefit to NAHU, but still meaningful. These dollars will help NAHU and its local and state chapters positively influence legislation, expand educational programs, better assist consumers, support more community organizations and more powerfully deliver our message to the public. Again, something that benefits all members.

We Don’t Have to Like One Another to Share a Goal

NAHU membership is open to all health professionals who abide by the association’s code of ethics. In a big-tent association like NAHU we’re not all going to like every fellow member. I’ve met thousands of wonderful people during my time in Health Underwriters. They’re individuals of tremendous professionalism and integrity. I’ve also come across a few folks I don’t particularly like or respect and not every fellow member likes me. That doesn’t matter. We’re a professional association, not a college fraternity.

What matters is our commonality of purpose. NAHU members are benefit specialists adhering to a high ethical standard while seeking to do what’s best for our profession, our industry and, especially, for our clients. Any benefits specialist who shares this commitment and acts with integrity is welcome in NAHU. This is what makes the association strong: acceptance without regard to personal feelings, but in the pursuit of common interest.

I don’t like Zenefits. If the company and its agents seek to do what’s best for their clients, our industry, and our profession and acts ethically, however, then I accept them. Indeed, I welcome them to Health Underwriters.

Outside the association, I look forward to helping community-based benefit brokers like those in NAHU drink Zenefits’ milkshake. That, however, is a topic for another post.

HHS to Pay Brokers for Enrolling Consumers in Federal High Risk Pool

Should brokers be compensated for helping consumers to enroll in government programs like the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) created by the new health care reform law? Until now, the federal government’s answer has been “no.” That changed today and a significant precedent is being set.

The National Association of Health Underwriters announced today that, beginning no later than October 1st, licensed agents and brokers will be paid a flat fee of $100 per enrolled applicant. (Payments could begin sooner if the changes to the application can be done more quickly).

This fee will only apply to the high risk pools set up by the federal government for the 23 states who declined or were unable to do so plus the District of Columbia. Many, if not most, state-run exchanges already pay brokers for assisting their citizens in enrolling in their pools. According to NAHU the average state-based fee is $85 per enrolled applicant.

In announcing the change, the Department of Health and Human Services noted the greater enrollment success achieved in states pools that compensate brokers for their work. As stated in the Department’s press release: “This step will help reach those who are eligible but un-enrolled. Several States have experimented with such payments with good success.,”

The decision to support and work with brokers is part of the Department’s efforts to increase enrollment in the PCIP high risk plans by removing administrative hurdles and lowering premiums. In fact,  in 18 of the states, premiums will be coming down as much as 40 percent according to a press release from HHS.

The PCIP was designed to provide coverage to individuals unable to obtain health insurance in the private market due to existing health conditions. 18,313 Americans have enrolled in the federal high risk pool through March 31st, a fraction of the 5 million consumers expected to enroll in the program (fraction as in “0.4%).

Progress usually comes in small steps, not giant leaps. The significance of HHS recognizing the value brokers bring to America’s health care system—and their willingness to pay for that value—should not be underestimated. For example, the House of Representatives will soon conduct a hearing on HR 1206, the legislation to remove broker compensation from the medical loss ratio calculations required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Proponents of this law will be able to point to the recruitment efforts of HHS in support of the federal Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan to reinforce the need to keep brokers in their role as consumer counselors and advocates in the new health insurance world being created by the PPACA.

NAHU and other agent organizations worked hard to achieve this recognition. No doubt, however, some brokers will protest that the HHS program pays brokers only a one-time fee. This complaint is misplaced. Enrollment in the PCIP is fundamentally different than working with consumers shopping for coverage in the commercial market. The PCIP is, after all, a government health plan, more similar to Medicaid than to plans available on the open market. Further, enrollees in the high risk plan, by definition, cannot obtain traditional coverage. What’s significant is not the details of the compensation (although it is worth pointing out that HHS is setting the fee higher than the average paid by states), but the existence of compensation for enrolling Americans into a federal health plan.  When it comes to precedents, this is one that can aptly be described as “significant.”

NAIC to Study MLR Impact on Compensation and Consumers Before Voting on Changes

Brokers holding their breath to see if their compensation will be removed from the medical loss ratio formula required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be turning a darker shade of blue. The hoped for support from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which was expected to result from a meeting of the NAIC’s Professional Health Insurance Advisors Task Force this past Sunday, has been delayed at least four weeks.

While there was widespread and strong support for removing independent broker compensation from the formula carriers are used to calculate their medical loss ratio under the PPACA, the Task Force opted to ask their staff to provide additional data before making a decision.

While disappointing the delay is not really surprising. A substantial of the commissioners are new, having just been elected or appointed as a result of the November 2010 election. As Jessica Waltman at the National Association of Health Underwriters put it in a message to NAHU’s leadership, “[I]t was clear as soon as we arrived in Austin that some of the new Commissioners (and there are quite a few of them) had reservations about moving that quickly since this is their first meeting…. some of the more senior Commissioners were very sympathetic to their concerns about rushing things through. The NAIC almost never endorses legislation, so this is a huge deal for them.“

In addition, the issue is controversial. Consumer groups and some liberal Democratic Senators have voiced opposition to changing the MLR formula.

The Agent-Broker Alliance leading the charge for this change to the health care reform law met with several supportive commissioners and the decision was made to delay the vote. This would allow time for information relevant to the issue, already requested of carriers, to be received and considered. This time will also be used by the Agent-Broker Alliance to gather and submit data on how independent brokers are able to save clients money and the post-sale service brokers provide their clients.

Most observers I talk with are optimistic the NAIC will eventually endorse this change in spite of hesitancy from some liberal commissioners. In this regard, Politico Pulse is reporting that “Liberal insurance commissioners got a little feisty (well, for insurance commissioners) … pushing back against the speedy, one-month time line for” considering the broker compensation exemption proposal. Politico quotes California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones as saying “I’d hate to see haste impede us having the information in front of us to make a relevant decision.” And Washington state’s insurance commissioner Mike Kreidler as declaring “I hope what we produce as a work product we can stand behind and that we’re more interested in accuracy than speed.”

When politicians speak of the need to “study” and “consider” an issue it means 1) they sincerely want to learn more about the topic or 2) they want to defeat the proposal without having to go on the record voting against it. While I hope I’m wrong, given the opposition to the exemption from liberal consumer groups, I’m betting on the latter motivation in this case. (Time will tell as I’m inclined to believe the data will be very supportive of moving forward with the exemption). That the NAIC went ahead with just a four week delay in spite of calls from Commissioners Jones and Kreidler to slow down is a sign that while there will be debate, there’s a better than even chance the NAIC will indeed support legislation to make changes to the medical loss ratio provisions of the PPACA.

Ultimately whether broker compensation is included in medical loss ratio calculations will be determined by Congress and President Barack Obama – which means nothing is certain. While I believe taking this action furthers the intent and purpose of the health care reform bill, the proposal will not enjoy smooth and speedy sailing. The bipartisan legislation introduced by Representatives Mike Rogers and John Barrow, HR 1206, has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but no date for a hearing has yet been set.

That the idea is still alive, however, is both remarkable and encouraging. But it’s still too early to start breathing again quite yet.

NAHU’s Legislative Influence in Context

This blog attempts to addresses health care reform issues of interest not just to brokers, but to a broader audience as well. This post, however, is aimed at brokers only.

Most brokers are disappointed with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The list of complaints are long, but would include the impact of the medical loss ratio provisions on their livelihood, the failure to deal with rising medical care costs, and a host of issues related to the exchanges.

Brokers fought hard to make health care reform meaningful, to assure it constrained costs and increased access. On some issues we succeeded. On too many we lost.

Brokers are angry with the result and, understandably, are looking to understand the cause. Sometimes its not enough to identify who won. Blame needs to be apportioned. And a surprising number of brokers, albeit a distinct minority, are blaming their own professional association, the National Association of Health Underwriters.

NAHU can defend itself from the specific charges being leveled (and I invite them to do so here on the blog). But if we’re going to spend time on a discussion of what NAHU could and couldn’t accomplished, then let’s have an informed discussion.

For example, I often hear brokers demand that NAHU educate Americans concerning the value of brokers. Ironically, this is a job each and every broker can do simply by doing their jobs in a professional, effective and visible way. But the context that’s missing from this criticism is the enormous cost such an undertaking would involve.

Then there’s the political battles. NAHU is apparently expected to win them all. But here’s a a quick quiz to explain why this might be harder than some believe. In considering your answers, it might be helpful to remember the adage of then-California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh that money is the mother’s milk of politics:

Given a political fight, who is more likely to be heard in Congress, Association A spending over $144 million on lobbying or Association B with a total budget – for everything it does – of less than $6 million?

Who is more likely to win a legislative battle, Association B with it’s $6 billion total spending budget or Association C with a mere $22 million lobbying payout?

Would it change your mind if Association B had a Political Action Committee with roughly $300,000 versus Association C’s contribution to federal candidates totaling more than $17 million?

When it comes to influencing Congress, the US Chamber of Commerce is the king of the hill. The Chamber spent over $144 million on lobbying activities in 2009 and another $132 million in 2010. No one else came anywhere close.

With over 225,000 dues-paying members, the American Medical Association is both a grassroots and a financial power. The AMA contributed over $27 million to federal candidates in the 2010 election cycle and spent $22.5 million on lobbying.

NAHU is the one with the $6 million budget (which also covers member educational activities and the like) and the PAC contributions totaling in the low hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars.

Some other interesting numbers:

The Service Employees International Union spent over $1.7 million on campaign contributions in the 2010 campaign cycle, down from over $2.8 million for the 2008 election.

In the 2008 election cycle alone, the pharmaceutical industry contributed over $26 million to federal candidates.

Of the top spending lobbying efforts in 2009 according to OpenSecrets.org:

  • #1, as noted, was the Chamber of Commerce at $144.5 million
  • #4 was the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America at $26.1 million
  • #5 was Pfizer Inc. at $25.8 million
  • $6 was the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association at $23.6 million
  • #7 was AARP at $21 million
  • #9 was the AMA at $20.7 million
  • #12 was the American Hospital Association at $18.3 million.

You get the idea.

The ability of these organizations to devote these resources to advocating for their members is because those members provide them the resources to do so. What resources NAHU has comes from the same source.

NAHU will never be in the league of $20 million lobbyists. Nor does it need to be. NAHU’s influence is far greater than its lobbying expenditures or the size of its PAC would suggest. It may not have the tens-of-millions of dollars necessary to run a national public education campaign, but it has educated lawmakers and regulators about the role of brokers. We did not win the fight on the medical loss ratio, but that battle continues and the loss would have been harsher, but for NAHU.

There are probably more than 100,000 brokers in this country who earn significant revenue from the sale and service of health insurance. Fewer than 25,000 are members of NAHU. That is a travesty, especially since many of the organization’s most vocal critics are numbered among those contributing nothing to the effort. Standing on the sidelines and criticizing is easy, often unhelpful, but easy.

So here’s the context: NAHU’s size is small relative to many of the other players. And here’s the reality: NAHU’s influence is much larger than its size. NAHU’s done much with relatively little. It could do more with more – more members, more revenue, more PAC contributions.

Asking tough questions of the association’s leadership is appropriate and helpful. If your not a member, letting the organization know why, in a professional manner, can be very helpful feedback. Seeking changes to its direction is the right of any member – non-members deserve and get no voice in determining the organization’s future.

So I am not suggesting in any way that criticism of NAHU is wrong. But to be constructive, the complaints need to understand the scale and scope of the political context in which NAHU operates.

HHS Certifies MLR Rules Lack Commission Relief

The Department of Health and Human Services certified the rules surrounding the calculation medical loss ratios carriers will need to meet beginning in 2011. For the past few months there had been considerable concern expressed by state Insurance Commissioners, the National Association of Health Underwriters and other agent organizations, about the negative impact the MLR provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would have on broker commissions and, consequently, on consumers.

While the Department had engaged in considerable discussion on how to handle this, the medical loss ratio regulations HHS promulgated today does little to resolve the issue. Yes, they leave the door open for addressing the reality that the treatment of commissions under the MLR rules could “disrupt” the market, but they had the chance to do a lot more.

In future posts I’ll address the impact of this result, but for now, so readers know what happened, here is NAHU’s report on the HHS certification of the medical loss ratio rules.

(By the way, brokers reading this who are not members of NAHU should be ashamed. The most important legislation of your career is being reviewed, refined and revised. No organization speaks more loudly or effectively on behalf of brokers than NAHU. You owe it your clients, your profession and to yourself to support those efforts by joining NAHU today).

This morning, the Department of Health and Human Services issued interim final rules on the MLR provisions in PPACA. The rules include agent and broker commissions as part of the non-claims costs in the MLR calculation and does not allow for any portion of the agent and broker commissions to be considered a passed-through expense and excluded from the MLR calculation. NAHU is extremely disappointed in this result because, in our meetings with HHS, the White House and state insurance commissioners on this issue, all repeatedly acknowledged the potentially negative impact of the MLR calculation could have on agents and brokers as well as consumers’ access to affordable health plans.

However, the regulation does permit states to seek waivers from the MLR requirements, including the possibility of seeking a waiver to have agent and broker commissions taken out of the denominator of the MLR calculation for policies sold in that state. The regulation specifically states that the impact of the MLR standard on agents and brokers will be a factor in considering whether a particular individual market would be destabilized. Furthermore, the regulation establishes a process by which stakeholders will have input on the waiver decision-making process and specifically included agents and brokers among the stakeholder groups that must be included.

The interim rule is effective on January 1, 2011, but HHS is actively seeking comments on the regulation and will issue further guidance and a final rule later this year. HHS specifically requested comments on how this interim rule will impact agent and broker compensation and how that may lead to marketplace disruption, and NAHU will be submitting detailed comments on behalf of its members on this critical issue.

Over the next few weeks, NAHU will also be coordinating with the leadership of each state chapter and insurance commissioners in each state to encourage their participation in the medical loss ratio waiver process. We expect that many state insurance commissioners will wish to submit waiver applications based on the impact the MLR rules may have on broker compensation and individual and small-group market competition in their states. The states of Georgia, Iowa, Maine and South Carolina have already indicated to HHS their intent to do so, and Florida and West Virginia have indicated publicly that they are in the process of considering moving forward with a waiver application. NAHU expects that many more states will follow suit once they have finished analyzing the impact the 308-page MLR regulation will have on them.

Finally, NAHU has been working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers for the past few months on federal legislation to exempt agent and broker commissions from the MLR calculation. The regulation delays the time that MLR rebate payments must be made to policyholders until August 2012, providing some time for a legislative solution to be enacted. Pursuing a legislative strategy to permanently solve this problem will be NAHU’s top goal with the 112th Congress.

Commission Exemption Not in NAIC’s MLR Rules, But Issue is Still Open

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners approved rules defining how carriers will calculate their medical loss ratios as is required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The NAIC’s proposal will now be considered by the Department of Health and Human Services which is expected to finish its review of the regulations in a few weeks. Which is a good thing considering the PPACA requires carrier to begin meeting the medical loss ratio targets established by the health care reform law (80 percent for individual and small group plans; 85 percent on coverage for groups of 100+) beginning January 1, 2011.

In approving the MLR regulations the NAIC rejected or tabled amendments put forward by insurers and brokers. One change some insurers sought was to allow carriers to calculate their medical loss ratios based on national business (the Commissioners are requiring the calculations to be based on a state-by-state spending). Another would change the “credibility adjustment” formula used in the calculation.  Apparently this would have made it easier for smaller carriers to meet the MLR target.

The amendment put forward by brokers to exclude commissions from medical loss ratio calculations was withdrawn and the issue was referred to a working group of the NAIC’s executive committee. While some interpret this as ending the issue, that is far from clear.

The National Association of Health Underwriters along with the National Association of Insurance and Financial Planners and the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America were the advocates of the broker commission amendment. I attended a conference today at which NAHU’s CEO, Janet Trautwein spoke. I’ll do my best to summarize my understanding of the situation based on her talk bolstered with reporting by National Underwriter.

Apparently there were enough votes among Commissioners to pass the broker commission amendment. However, NAIC lawyers questioned the authority of the organization to promulgate such a rule and warned that it conflicted with other proposals submitted to HHS by the NAIC. This led to a concern that including the broker commission exemption would lead to HHS rejecting the NAIC rules altogether. At the very least, HHS was likely to strike the commission exemption.

To avoid this result  a compromise was brokered between HHS staff and supportive Insurance Commissioners. A joint NAIC executive committee/HHS working group will be created to address broker compensation and the medical loss ratio provisions of the health care reform law. The MLR amendment advocated by the agent associations will be the “starting point” for the working group’s deliberations. Aware of the need to resolve this issue quickly, the NAIC committed to convening the working group immediately (which, I assume, means in in a few weeks). The goal of the commissioners supporting this approach is to work with HHS to fashion a regulatory solution that ensures equitable compensation for brokers.

Ms. Trautwein noted the possibility that the working group approach could result in a better outcome for all parties (regulators, carriers and brokers) than if the amendment had been adopted by the NAIC. This would certainly be the case if exempting commissions was deemed, as the NAIC lawyers warned, to exceed the NAIC’s authority.

NAHU and its allies have certainly built a great deal of political support among Insurance Commissioners (both Democrats and Republicans) behind the need to preserve a role for professional brokers in the new health care reform system being created as a result of passage of the PPACA. They recognize the value brokers bring to the products they sell and, as importantly, service well beyond the initial purchase. They also recognize the heavy service load underfunded and ill-prepared state agencies would need to take on if producers are removed from the health insurance marketplace.

There are some, including commentators on this blog, who believe without the commission exemption brokers will be put out of business. I disagree and will explain why in a future post. What’s significant to note now is that the treatment of broker compensation under health care reform has yet to been finally resolved. And there are individuals of good faith from both parties seeking a workable solution. That doesn’t guarantee a positive result, but it certainly creates the possibility for one.

Commissions: In or Out of MLR Calculation?

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners is meeting with the intent of finalizing rules surrounding the medical loss ration requirements contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The impact of their decision will be profound on consumers, employers, carriers and brokers. A final vote is scheduled for tomorrow (October 21st) by the full membership on the rules – and on amendments to those rules – which have been worked on for hundreds of hours by NAIC committees. Whatever emerges from the NAIC plenary session will be forwarded on to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Department may make amendments to the NAIC proposal, but The Hill has reported that HHS is reluctant to “override” the commissioners on NAIC medical loss ratio rules.

What this means is that a lot of issues surrounding the MLR provisions of the new health care reform law – provisions which take effect on January 1, 2011 – will come into clearer focus tomorrow. Again, HHS may still modify these rules, so these won’t be the final rules. And states are given some flexibility in applying the medical loss ratio regulations on carriers doing business within their boundaries, but there will be far greater clarity tomorrow than there is today.

Some of the issues being hashed out are esoteric (not to actuaries, but to the rest of us). But one issue that is of great concern to brokers is how commissions will be used in calculating a carrier’s MLR. As noted previously in this blog, the National Association of Health Underwriters and other agent organizations have been working hard to have broker commissions be removed from the medical loss ratio formula. The logic behind this is that carriers collect broker commissions as an administrative convenience to producers and their clients, passing 100% of these dollars along to independent third-parties. The carriers receive no benefit from this process, but the cost to brokers and policy holders, in the aggregate, is greatly reduced, lowering overall administrative costs.

Exempting this pass-through of commissions from the medical loss ratio calculations is not currently a part of the NAIC MLR regulations. However, I’ve been told that at least 10 Insurance Commissioners are co-sponsoring an amendment to create this pass-through exemption in the rules sent to Health and Human Services. And supporters believe they are closing in on the majority of the Commissioners needed to adopt this amendment.

Politico is reporting on the upcoming commission amendment, too. They note that “This could be a tough one for many commissioners who say that if agents/brokers go out of business – because their commissions would decrease – they’re going to get flooded with consumer inquiries and requests for help.”

Inclusion of the pass-through provision in the NAIC’s medical loss ratio rules would certainly decrease the pressure on carriers to dramatically reduce commissions. However, pressure on commissions will still continue. Tying broker commissions to a percentage of premium – premiums that increase based on medical cost inflation, not general inflation – is still likely to fall as carriers’ commission systems are refined to accommodate different calculations. And broker commissions will need to be disclosed to employers and consumers (carriers will need to separate broker fees from premium). In some states this is likely to result in downward pressure on commissions. And the guarantee issue provisions taking effect in 2014 will also tend to lead to lower commissions. On the positive side, the Insurance Commissioners’ recognition that brokers play an important role after the sale in counseling and advocating for their clients will tend to assure that brokers are compensated fairly.

Of course, all of this is moot unless the NAIC approves the amendment, HHS concurs with this provision and states don’t enact laws or regulations that run counter to it. We’re about to get some clarity. Certainty, however, is still to come.

Governor Schwarzenegger Signs California Health Benefit Exchange Legislation

California became the first state to enact legislation creating an exchange under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on September 30th when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 1602 (authored by Assembly Speaker John Perez) and SB 900 (by Senator Elaine Alquist). The two bills create the California Health benefit Exchange. In signing the bills Governor Schwarzenegger stated “Choice and competition have the power to improve health care quality and reduce health care costs for California consumers. With the California Health Benefit Exchange, we will be able to create a competitive marketplace where consumers can choose among qualified health plans – all without relying on the state’s General Fund.”

The five-person Board created by the legislation are tasked with creating an exchange to present health plan options to individuals and small businesses beginning January 1, 2014. Concurrent with Governor Schwarzenegger’s signing of the bills, the Obama Administration announced a $1 million grant to the state “to fund the costs of preliminary planning efforts related to the development of the Exchange.” Further federal funds are expected to become available to the California Health Benefit Exchange in 2011. After 2014 the Exchange is designed to be supported entirely from fees paid by health plans and insurers, meaning no general revenues will be allocated to the entity.

Some carriers supported the legislation; others urged the Governor to veto it. The concern of many opponents was the power given to the Exchange’s Board to exclude accept or exclude carriers from the Exchange. The fear, which is demonstrated on a weekly basis by local, state and federal agencies every day, is that the Board will use the carrot of being included in the Exchange as a lever to dictate what insurers do (and what plans they offer) outside the Exchange. Giving this power to an independent Board (one that is exempt from significant oversight by the legislative or executive branches of government) is seen as a threat to the private marketplace.

Supporters argue that this power is essential if the Exchange to going to fulfill the desired (and desirable) goal of negotiating lower health insurance premiums for consumers and businesses buying through the Exchange.

Brokers have had another concern about AB 1602 and SB 900. The federal health care reform envision exchanges that include “navigators” to help consumers and business owners explore their health insurance options. However, the PPACA leaves it to states to define the actual specifics of the navigator role. Will they simply be a “help desk” answering questions about how to use the exchanges or will they be actively engaged in providing advice and guidance on which plan a consumer or business should select? The California laws leaves these details to the Exchange Board. What’s of concern, however, is that language that would have required the California Exchange’s navigators to be licensed was removed from the now-signed legislation shortly before it was passed by the Legislature.

And there’s a sentence in Governor Schwarzenegger’s press release touting his signing of AB 1602 and SB 900 that is at both once reassuring and of great concern. “The Exchange will work in partnership with agents and brokers, community organizations and other “navigators” to help consumers make informed decisions based on the price, quality and value.” While it’s reassuring the Schwarzenegger Administration recognizes that agents and brokers need to be involved with the Exchange, it’s of concern that they consider licensed professionals to be on an equal footing with unlicensed community organizations and others.

What will be important for the California Association of Health Underwriters, the leading organization representing independent producers, and other agent groups to work through with the Legislature and the Exchange Board is that there is a difference between licensed, regulated brokers and others. Each can play a role. When it comes to publicizing the Exchange and providing general advice about how to use it, non-licensed individuals and entities can play an important and valuable role. Helping consumers select the health plan that best suits their unique needs and then providing ongoing service to purchasers once they’ve obtained coverage, however, is best performed by licensed and regulated professionals.

The statement in the Governor’s press release is consistent with this division of labor, but only because it lacks details. Follow-up legislation and explicit regulations will be needed to assure consumers have access to qualified professionals. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners sees a continued role for brokers as an essential consumer protection. In a resolution adopted during their August 2010 meeting, the NAIC noted that “employers and consumers will need professional guidance even more in the future” as a result of health care reform. 

While Governor Schwarzenegger’s signing of AB 1602 and SB 900 directly impacts only Californians, other states are likely to study these bills as they contemplate the design of their own exchanges – another reason why legislation to clarify brokers’ role in the state’s Exchange should be introduced and enacted quickly in the next legislative session. So this California development could have repercussions across the country.

In some of the comments posted on this blog, some have suggested that Democratic states are likely to create anti-broker exchanges while more Republican states will create broker-friendly ones. This view, however, ignores the facts that Republican’s health care reform proposals are as those of Democrats to increase health care costs while undermining brokers’ role in the system. Consider Republican support for mandating carriers to offer health insurance coverage to all applicants (“guarantee issue”) and their opposition to requiring all consumers to purchase coverage (an “individual mandate”)  No surer recipe for skyrocketing health insurance costs exists than imposing guarantee issue without an individual mandate. Assuming lawmakers will do the right thing just because of the political party they are in is naive. What’s required is a strong political and educational push by people who understand the current system, who sees its flaws, and have practical and meaningful ideas on how to fix it. Put another way, brokers must stay involved and engaged regardless of which political party holds the majority of seats in their state’s legislatures.

Fortunately, there’s still time (even in California) to make a difference. As noted, CAHU is already working on needed changes to AB 1602 and SB 900. Meanwhile, the National Association of Health Underwriters is deeply involved in working with state legislatures and insurance commissioners to help them develop exchanges that implement the letter and spirit of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act while preserving consumers’ access to qualified, professional producers.

In any change of the consequence and complexity presented by health care reform there will be advances and setbacks. The nice thing about politics and legislation is there’s always another election and another legislative session coming up. The key is to avoid giving in to despair with each setback, but rather to persevere until one achieves the next advance.

Medical Loss Ratios and Commissions

People don’t like uncertainty. In times of change, however, the unknown dominates the landscape. For health insurance brokers, the new health care reform legislation has created uncertainty of gargantuan proportions. Chief among the questions as yet unanswered:  will the medical loss ratio requirements contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act result in such severe reductions that brokers will need to leave the health insurance market?.

The import of this question is not a function of greed or avarice. Lots of people make a lot of money from health care. Mother Teresas are few and far between. America spends roughly $2.3 trillion on health care costs – roughly 16 percent of he nation’s GDP.  Hundreds of thousands of people put food on the their tables, roofs over their heads, and keep up with the Joneses by earning their share of these dollars. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with professionals earning a living by helping consumers find the right health care plan, navigate the system, advocate on their behalf when problems arise, and keep them informed of new products and changes to the industry that may impact them.

After all, we’re not talking about selling iced coffee here. Health insurance is complicated, expensive, shopped for rarely and both personal and critical to a family’s health and financial wellbeing. When it comes to making decisions on products or services like health insurance, consumers – whether buying for themselves or for their company and its employees – want and need expertise. And that expertise is best delivered by professional, licensed health insurance brokers. (While there are legal differences among the terms “agent,” “broker” and “producer,” I am using them interchangeably here).

Don’t take my word for it. A lot of Insurance Commissioners agree. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners just passed a resolution calling on federal policymakers to “acknowledge the critical role of producers and to establish standards for the exchanges so that insurance professionals will continue to be adequately compensated for the services they provide.” (NAIC Resolution “To Protect the Ability of Licensed Insurance Professionals to Continue to Serve the Public,” adopted August 17, 2010). The Commissioners are concerned that the creation of “Navigators,” as called for in the PPACA, to help consumers use the new health insurance exchanges to be available by 2014 “could provide an avenue for untrained individuals to evade producer licensing requirements and expose consumers to harm.” But their appreciation of the role played by brokers goes beyond the context of exchanges. The NAIC is saying that consumers – and regulators – benefit from the involvement of professional brokers.

Which brings us to the medical loss ratio provisions of the new health care reform legislation. By limiting the percentage of premiums carriers can spend on administrative costs to 20 percent for individual and small group policies (and 15 percent for large group contracts) broker compensation will, by necessity be reduced. The math is simple, especially as it concerns individual health insurance policies. Carriers with a decent block of business need 7-to-9 percent of premium for administrative costs. They would like to make (but don’t usually) 4-to-5 percent on this business. That leaves 6-to-9 percent for distribution costs. Given that in some states the first year commission on individual policies is 20 percent declining to 5-to-10 percent for renewals, we’re talking about a significant pay cut here.

Maybe. Because an argument can be made that commissions shouldn’t even be part of the medical loss ratio calculation. Here’s the theory:

The intent of the MLR requirement is to reduce non-medically-related costs in the health care system and to prevent carriers from reaping windfall profits when consumers are required to obtain health insurance coverage. Fine, but as applied to broker commissions, the minimum medical loss ratio requirements may actually increase overall administrative costs. Commissions are paid by consumers (whether individuals or employers). Today carriers collect these funds and pass 100 percent of them along to an independent third-party – producers. Health insurance companies don’t benefit from these dollars. They are providing an administrative convenience to their members and to their distribution partners – a convenience that reduces overall cost in the system.

Instead of consumers and business owners having to prepare, mail and track separate checks to brokers, carriers do the work. (Similar to how carriers aggregate claims owed to a hospital into a single payment as opposed to requiring each consumer to pay 100 percent of their hospital bill and then get reimbursed by the insurance company). And because of their infrastructure, carriers can accomplish this task more cost effectively. Brokers meanwhile receive one check for multiple clients, another administrative savings.

Given that the health plans are not benefiting from the commissions, but that having them collect the funds reduces overall costs, one could argue that commissions should not be part of the MLR calculation at all. As with some taxes, commissions should simply be outside the medical loss ratio calculation. And that argument is being made – and heard.

Several carriers found this idea intriguing, but it is the National Association of Health Underwriters that has spearheaded the effort to bring this concept to the attention of the NAIC. (The NAIC is responsible for establishing uniform definitions and methodologies for determining how medical loss ratios are calculated). And they have succeeded. As noted in the New York Times, “Some insurance commissioners seem sympathetic to the insurers’ arguments, including on the subject of how to treat broker commissions, which have historically been part of premiums. The insurers would exclude them from premium dollars, making it easier to meet the 80-cent minimum. The new standards ‘could potentially disrupt the availability of private health insurance, and do not take into account the integral role of health insurance agents,’ Kevin McCarty, the insurance commissioner for Florida, said last week in a letter sent to regulators.”

As noted in yesterday’s post, the NAIC has included broker commissions in the administrative cost section of the form they promulgated that will be used to capture the information used in calculating carriers’ spending on claims, health quality and administrative expenses. At first blush this would indicate that the NAIC has declined to exclude commissions from the medical loss ratio calculation. However, I’m told by people involved in the negotiations that the idea remains alive and could be included in future communications from the NAIC to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (who has to certify the NAIC’s medical loss ratio calculation proposal) when the NAIC provides the actual formula to be used.

Excluding commissions from the MLR calculation remains a long shot. That NAHU has pushed the idea as far along as it has is testimony to the respect with which the organization is held by Insurance Commissioners – and NAHU’s commitment to its membership. What’s significant, however, is that the idea has gained traction. As well it should. Because if commissions are cut too deeply, brokers will either abandon the market or negotiate separate compensation arrangements with their clients. Abandoning the market, as the NAIC resolution highlights, is not in the interest of consumers. And arranging for the payment of separate fees will result in greater administrative cost and more inconvenience for consumers. Far better, to simply remove producer compensation (which all the funds are paid to an entity completely independent from the carrier) from the MLR formula altogether.

Preparing for Health Care Reform

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. And it will stay that way for a long time. The new health care reform law will evolve, but it won’t be repealed. President Barack Obama would veto any outright appeal, which means a two-thirds vote in both Chambers would be required to overcome that veto. There’s not mathematical possibility, outside of a Karl Rove’s hallucination, in which that two-thirds threshold comes close to being met any time soon.

So the law is here to stay. However, that doesn’t mean the law won’t be changed. Legislation is like a blueprint, in this case defining the outline of health care reform. But as I’ve mentioned before, it is “the regulators, judges, businesses and civilians interpreting, implementing and simply trying to figure out how things are supposed to work” that make the law real. That process has only just begun. For example, one of the few elements of the law that takes effect in 2010 concerns the tax credits available to some small businesses to offset the cost of health insurance premiums they provide their workers. The IRS has begun providing guidelines on how this tax credit will work.

Another example: The Department of Health and Human Services has clarified an ambiguity in the law as to whether carriers must accept children for coverage regardless of any pre-existing conditions. HHS has decided children under 19 years of age are eligible for guarantee issue and carriers have agreed to go along with this interpretation. Good to know. And we’re being told in before the guarantee issue provision takes effect (in July for those keeping track).

There are a lot of guidelines, clarifications and new regulations still to come. But here’s the good news: like those mentioned above, they will be coming well in advance of the effective date of the health care reform package’s various provisions.

For health insurance brokers, uncertain of their role in the new world, this is good news. They will have plenty of time to prepare for changes in the health insurance industry before they take effect. And there are plenty of folks out there – associations, carriers, general agents, service providers, and even a blogger or two – who will be providing the information brokers need to deal with the coming changes. (Note: On April 13th at 10:30 Pacific Time I’ll be participating in an online conversation discussing health care reform and how brokers can prepare for it., This is a free webinar sponsored by Norvax. Also worth noting: the National Association of Health Underwriters has been offering a series of informative, insightful and helpful webinars for its members).

Of course, brokers have alternatives to preparing themselves for reform. They can stress out. They can panic. They can descend into anger. I hear denial can be comforting for awhile. But indulging in these reactions won’t accomplish much, especially in the long term.

Instead, brokers need to be thinking about the kind of agency that will survive and flourish in the years ahead. In my mind, this means spending the next few months refining one’s agency so it is both nimble and flexible. This will allow brokers to to adapt to a changing environment as new provisions of the law take effect, avoid the inevitable pitfalls created by new government bureaucracies or existing health insurance carriers, and to seize opportunities created by those same bureaucracies and carriers.

Notice I didn’t say “quickly avoid” or “immediately seize.” I’m not convinced victory will go to the swift this time around. Instead, I believe during this time of transition the advantage will go to the prepared, the informed and the thoughtful. Speed is required when change comes quickly. But when it comes to health care reform regulations will likely be in place six months or more before the legislative elements they refer to go into effect. This relieves brokers from the need to predict the future. Instead, prepared agencies will have at least some time to think about the developments as they emerge and figure out the right response. Given a choice between “quick” and “right” I’m going with the latter every time.

All of this means now is not the time to panic. Instead, now is the time to take stock of your business practices and determine which ones foster readiness – and which don’t. Now is the time to ignore the blathering of so-called news organizations that are more interested in whipping up partisan passion than informing insurance professionals or the public (yes, I’m looking at you Fox and MSNBC). Instead, plug into the vast support network out there, starting with NAHU, who are ready, willing and able to help you understand not just the letter of the new health care reform law, but how it is being brought to life.