More than 1,000 agents converged on Capitol Hill last week to make clear to their representatives in Congress the vital part they play in helping consumers make wise health insurance choices--and to maintain that role despite any reform legislation.
"This is a central issue for yourselves and the consumers you represent," said Charles Symington, senior vice president for government affairs at the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, speaking at a breakfast where members of a variety of producer associations were briefed on how they should approach their meetings with those in Congress.
"You must tell your congressmen that you are representing your clients," advised Janet Trautwein, executive vice president and CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters. "'Our clients need our help,' you should say. You are the experts. You know what works and what doesn't work."
"We are worried reform legislation could have the intended or unintended effect of undermining the employer-provided and group health insurance marketplace," Joel Wood, senior vice president of government affairs for the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, explained to those attending. "That consequence will occur if the House bill or the Senate bill passed [last week] by the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee become law."
However, Mr. Wood added, "we are a long way from final action. Your presence here is at an exciting and necessary time, and every meeting held today [with members of Congress] is worthwhile."
Also on hand was Diane Boyle, executive vice president of the Association of Health Insurance Advisors--a unit of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.
The agents filled a large ballroom at a downtown hotel for the briefing. They came to town against the background of six congressional committees--three in the House and another three in the Senate--drafting legislation that would reform the nation's health care delivery system.
Their objective is to pass one bill in each chamber before Congress departs for its month-long summer recess in early August.
Under the plan, congressional staffers will spend August outlining the differences between the bills and proposing compromises. Reconciliation panels will then work on meshing the competing bills in hopes of sending a final version to President Barack Obama by the end of October.
As noted by the speakers, one concern of agents is opposition to proposals that would create a "public option" health insurance plan designed to compete with private companies and force them to provide better service at lower prices.
A second concern is proposals to create a so-called "navigator" system that would award grants to public and private entities to "conduct public education, distribute fair and impartial information regarding health plans, [and] assist with enrollment and provide information." Agents would have been barred from performing this service.
However, during the briefing, they were told that the prior evening, the Senate Health, Education and Labor (HELP) Committee had delivered a "breakthrough," as Ms. Trautwein stated, on the "navigator" issue.
Through an amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the provision was revised to add "other licensed insurance agents and brokers" to those authorized to provide such information.
The amendment also mandates that any information given to consumers who access the system be provided by "qualified, and licensed, if appropriate," personnel.
According to the system being developed by Congress, the "navigators" would help consumers decipher the health coverage information provided through Internet "gateways" or "exchanges."
The program is based on the system developed to provide universal health care in Massachusetts by helping consumers pick the best options for their needs.
These "gateways" would provide access to all health care options--qualified health benefit plans as well as a "public" system.
On the "public plan" issue under the bill reported out by the HELP Committee on July 15, as well as in legislation unveiled by House Democrats on July 13, the plan would be administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In a briefing paper provided to agents, a key plank was that: "Health insurance agents and brokers strongly oppose a government-run public plan that would unfairly compete with the private health insurance market, divide risk pools and pile on significant unnecessary costs to health care reform compared to sensible improvements to private insurance markets."
As Mr. Symington also noted in his remarks, "a public plan cannot be competitive if it is not subject to lawsuits."
Agents from all states except for Hawaii participated in the fly-in.
In comments afterward, Mr. Symington said at the briefing that the trade groups were surprised so many agents had decided to participate in the "fly-in." He said the groups had predicted initially that only 400 would attend.