2015 Survey of Health Insurance Marketplace Assister Programs and Brokers


Last year, we reported the establishment of new consumer assistance resources under the ACA was a significant new development in the health coverage system. The ACA enabled millions of new consumers to enroll in coverage and created a new process for applying for coverage and financial assistance. Last year, we reported the new consumer assistance infrastructure faced many challenges, including inexperience and IT problems.   This year most Programs are more seasoned and websites worked better. But challenges remain.Returning Assister Programs helped 19% fewer people during the second Open Enrollment period. Returning Navigator and FQHC Programs (supported by Marketplace and HRSA grants, respectively) helped about the same number of consumers this year; voluntary CAC Programs experienced most of the decline in people helped. Two years do not make a trend. But because the level of consumer assistance provided this year was more sustained in grant funded programs compared to volunteer programs, this suggests that continued investment in Marketplace consumer assistance would make a difference. So far, though, a minority (27%) of Assister Programs overall say they are very certain funding will be available to support their work next year.

Programs also suggest other changes that could improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Strengthening the technical assistance offered by Marketplace Call Centers, and fully integrating Marketplace and Medicaid websites are steps that could streamline the enrollment process.

Facilitating coordination between Assister Programs is something else Marketplaces could undertake to strengthen consumer assistance.   Returning Programs that coordinated often with other Assister Programs were more likely to increase the number of people they helped this year. In some states, so-called super Navigators have been designated (formally by the Marketplace or informally) to promote coordination, centralize training and mentor new Assisters, facilitate scheduling and referrals, and help on complex cases.

Further capacity building may also still be important, though capacity constraints were less severe than in year one. One-in-five Assister Programs this year said they could not help all consumers who needed it. Because voluntary CAC Programs continue to provide a significant portion of all consumer assistance, Marketplaces could consider targeting additional financial support or coordination to at least some of these Programs, as well.

For a second year, enrollment assistance was time intensive. This year more Programs were able to complete the process through consumer selection of a health plan. But plan comparison and selection continued to pose challenges. Help comparing plans is still one of the leading reasons why consumers seek in-person help. Assisters still report many consumers have questions about plan choices that were not answered by information on Marketplace websites. Low health insurance literacy among consumers also persists. Because consumers may be faced with dozens of Marketplace plan choices, improving this process will be challenging. The FFM and some state Marketplaces are working to gradually improve the quality of health plan information and to develop new plan comparison tools for consumers in the future. But consumers will likely need a substantial amount of in person help, in addition, for years to come.

Outside of Open Enrollment, many Assister Programs remained busy. During the 6-month period between enrollment periods, Assister Programs helped nearly 300,000 people report mid-year changes and more than 600,000 people apply for special enrollment periods (SEP). Over the same period Assister Programs also helped nearly 800,000 individuals with post-enrollment problems. The ACA provided for state-based ombudsman programs (CAPs) to help with post enrollment problems and requires Navigators to refer consumers to CAPs for this kind of help. However this part of the ACA consumer assistance infrastructure is the least developed. CAPs were established in most states in 2010, but most have not received any new federal funding since 2012.

Brokers also continue their traditional role helping consumers in the non-group market, and are an important source of assistance for consumers seeking marketplace coverage. Most in this space today sold non-group coverage prior to the ACA. Most say it now takes more time to sell a non-group policy and the per-policy commission is lower. But most also say they are earning as much or more in total non-group revenue today compared to pre-2014, though a substantial minority also report earning less. Brokers also continue to help consumers buy coverage outside of the Marketplace. On average, brokers sell one policy outside for every two Marketplace policies they sell.

Brokers and Assister Programs engage in many of the same activities, though brokers are less likely to help consumers apply for Medicaid and more likely to help small businesses apply for small group plans. Brokers also appear less likely, compared to Assister Programs, to help some other of the most vulnerable consumers, including those who lack internet at home and those who need translation assistance.   The implication for Marketplaces would seem to be that brokers and Assister Programs are not interchangeable. To ensure that all consumers who need help receive it, both types of professionals will need to continue their key roles.

Section 5: Consumer Assistance by Health Insurance Brokers Methodology

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