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Insurance Agents Play A Key Role In Getting Californians Covered

Insurance Agents Play A Key Role In Getting Californians Covered

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Dale Diskant, an independent insurance agent in Huntington Beach, has been selling health insurance for some 20 years. He now runs his one-person firm, Corinthian Capital, out of the cramped-yet-assiduously organized garage of his three-bedroom rental unit at the end of quiet cul-de-sac.

Like many in his profession in the state of California, he decided to become a certified insurance agent under Covered California, the insurance exchange instituted by the state through the Affordable Care Act. The designation allows him to enroll people in the exchange’s insurance plans and collect a commission from the insurance company for his efforts.

The certification process wasn’t exactly easy. “There was such a mad rush to get this done by Oct. 1,” he said. That was the launch date of the exchange. Diskant started training in August, completing nine 30- to 40-minute training modules online, then eight hours in a hotel ballroom-turned-classroom in Woodland Hills with 600 of his fellow agents. But given the potential number of new clients, he’s convinced all the time and out-of-pocket expenses – $160 – will be worth it.

See Also: To Get California Covered, People First Have to Enroll 

“I’ve got them all lined up,” Diskant said of his Covered California leads. “I’m primarily a referral business. None of my marketing stuff has ever worked,” he added with a rueful chuckle. “I’m out there talking to my clients and getting referrals from them. This one gal, her parents are the perfect candidates. My musician buddies who are poor — there’s just a whole list of people who flat-out don’t have insurance.”

Diskant is one of an ever-growing number of insurance agents who have completed the training for Covered California. But he and others in his line of work say they were an afterthought for Covered California, which from the get-go, placed the emphasis on training county health care workers and counselors at nonprofits to help people find the right coverage for them.

Sam Smith, president of the California Association of Health Underwriters, said that Covered California initially estimated that they’d only need to train some 3,000 of the roughly 30,000 health-insurance agents in the state. “We said, ‘That’s ridiculous, our membership is going to take up all those seats in no time.’ So they bumped it to 9,000. And now you’re looking at 20,000.”

As of early February, nearly 11,000 agents had been certified. Covered California reports that certification is in progress for about another 10,000 agents. The number of individuals enrolled in exchange plans stood at 500,108 on Dec. 31, but how many of those individuals worked with an agent on their application is unknown. As of now, Covered California is not releasing a breakdown of how many applicants used any of the system’s certified assisters to help them enroll.

The role of agents under Covered California does have its critics. Some wonder if the commission-based nature of their industry will create a potential conflict of interest because some plans pay higher commissions to agents than others. Agents counter that, at the commission rates they’re earning on Covered California policies, signing people up for these plans isn’t a very efficient way for them to make money.

But if you needed further proof of how much Covered California now values the contribution of insurance agents in the effort to get everyone signed up, a PR misstep from late last year is instructive. In early December, a story broke that Covered California had taken the contact information of tens of thousands of people who had visited, but not enrolled, and sent that information to certified insurance agents—who, in turn, began making solicitation calls and emails to potential clients.

People complained about the calls; Peter Lee, director of Covered California, told the Los Angeles Times that the information sent to the insurance agents was in compliance with the privacy laws.

“It wasn’t like it was some clandestine thing,” said Smith, an Encino insurance broker who has himself become a certified agent under Covered California. “It was a concerted effort to reach out to the thousands of people who had started the application process online and hadn’t finished it yet.”

Especially in the initial six to seven weeks that was live, the online enrollment process, while not plagued with the same degree of technical glitches as the much-maligned, was not a simple process, Smith pointed out. The manpower to reach out to applicants was “not something they have through Certified Enrollment Counselors or grantees,” Smith said, which was why Lee decided would be good idea to ask certified insurance agents to reach out.

“But was it communicated well? No,” Smith allowed. It would have been better for Covered California, rather than individual agents, to send an email out to people, asking them if they would like help with their application, he said. As for the direct solicitations that were sent out, “I saw some of these emails, and they weren’t done well,” Smith said. “I was not pleased.”

As for Dale Diskant, to paraphrase a dated infomercial, he not only sells Covered California plans, he’s also a client. Before the Affordable Care Act, he didn’t have health insurance, and hadn’t had it for years. “I can’t afford a couple of grand a month,” he explained.

He’s aware of the irony of being an uninsured insurance agent, but as with so many others, the math just didn’t work out. His is the only income in his three-person household, and his residual income took a 30-35 percent hit during the recession.

That’s changed under Covered California: Diskant has already signed himself up for coverage. “I’m going to get a subsidy!” he declared with relish. “Because I’ve got three people here, the Bronze program for me? Three hundred bucks a month!”

Related Stories:

Covered California Making Limited Inroads with Uninsured Latinos

Medical Homes Part 1: The Reality vs. The Hype

Capturing a historic moment: Obamacare in California

Image by via Flickr

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