This month’s glitch-filled rollout of the health insurance marketplaces created by federal law is a business opportunity for brokers and agents, but regulators warn that it also opened the door for those who would seek to line their pockets by misleading consumers.
New Hampshire’s insurance commissioner sent a cease-and-desist letter last week to an Arizona company he accused of building a website to mislead health care shoppers into thinking it was the official marketplace. The site was taken down Friday.
Regulators in Washington state and Pennsylvania also have told agents to change websites that seemed likely to convince consumers they were connecting to government-run sites. Connecticut’s insurance department warned agents and brokers this summer that it will take action against agents who mislead consumers or design sites to replicate the state-run exchange.
An organization run by the top insurance regulators in each state recently issued an alert on the potential for scams related to the marketplaces. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners advised consumers that bogus sites have been spotted and warned people to beware of unsolicited calls by people claiming they need personal information to help them enroll in insurance.
Not all insurance agents are licensed to sell insurance on the exchanges, and buying a policy from one of them could leave consumers without the tax subsidies that make the health insurance affordable. Consumers who seek an insurance professional’s help are urged to make sure they know who they’re dealing with.
Susan Johnson, the Northwest regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said while some brokers are passionate about helping, others are seeking to take advantage.
In one such case, a state-licensed broker in suburban Seattle bought the domain name washingtonhealthplanfinder.org and built a website with fewer computer glitches than the state’s new health insurance marketplace, wahealthplanfinder.org. The brokerage’s site told customers: “Welcome to the Exchange!” in big print until the state insurance commissioner asked for changes to avoid confusion.
“You don’t want to go to the wrong portal,” Johnson said.
The insurance broker, Jeff Lindstrom, said he thought he was being creative when he bought 40-50 domain names to bring in new customers. He said he is not trying to confuse the public.
In New Hampshire, newhampshirehealthexchange.com offered free price quotes on insurance, but it wasn’t affiliated with the state or the federal government, which is running New Hampshire’s official online market. The site was taken down days after the state sent a cease-and-desist letter.
In Pennsylvania, a consumer law group this summer tipped off regulators about a licensed broker’s website that featured a logo mimicking the state seal and telling visitors: “Welcome to the Pennsylvania Health Exchange!” The broker took down PAhealthexchange.com a day after the state insurance department’s enforcement bureau called.
While regulators have warned consumers, they don’t have any reports of people being cheated. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners and state agencies in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina report no complaints since the marketplaces launched on Oct. 1.