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Independent health insurance websites wait ... and wait to enroll their prospects

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When the launch of Healthcare.gov was less than perfect, insurance agents like Bill Warren of Benefits Design Resources in Miami Beach were philosophical. "I plan to use the time to study up on the plans," said the independent agent who went through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid online training course to sell subsidized health plans on Healthcare.gov.

But as two weeks became three and more problems surfaced, not only independent agents, but also websites like eHealthInsurance.com that were planning to start selling new, subsidized Obamacare policies on Oct. 1, still can't offer them to customers, Kaiser Health News reports. 

When the Affordable Care Act passed and the federal government said it was going to open online insurance shopping sites. Gary Lauer, CEO of eHealth, fought long and hard for the right for private firms like his to compete, Kaiser says. He finally won.

"But at this point, many consumers still can't shop for these plans on commercial sites, and Lauer says he has no firm date for when they'll be able to. 

"'I hope in the next few weeks, and I've been saying that for the past couple of weeks,' Lauer says. "We're somewhat dependent on this federal exchange working in a stable fashion.'

"Telling potential customers they'll have to come back later is a problem for companies like Lauer's and for the White House. But Caroline Pearson, with the consulting firm Avalere Health, says if the White House is going to reach the goal of getting 7 million Americans signed up for health coverage in the law's first year, it needs partners like eHealth, because they make online shopping easy and have a large customer base. 

eHealth's Lauer says his company is offering rain checks to shoppers who qualify for new subsidies to help them afford insurance, and hoping they'll come back. So are local agents like Warren, as well as navigators like Doral-based Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, which is now enrolling people with paper applications. 

Uncertainty is bad for business, but these online brokers aren't totally dead in the water, KHN reports. They can still sell health policies to people who don't qualify for subsidies. Lauer says his company is selling plenty of those. And the health care law is substantially boosting traffic to his site.

But people with subsidies represent a huge new market and commercial online brokers can't yet offer them the product the federal health care law requires. According to Kaiser, they say they can weather the problems for the next few weeks, knowing customers have until at least Dec. 15 to enroll in a health plan. 

The question that makes them nervous isn't whether or not the system will be fixed, but when? Read the story

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