Health insurance agents saw a flood of people wanting to sign up for coverage in the 2021 open enrollment period for the Obamacare marketplaces – so many people needing coverage, in fact, that some agents reported they simply ran out of time to help everyone.
That was the word from Ronnell Nolan, president and CEO of Health Agents for America, whose members are independent health insurance agents.
Open enrollment for 2021 ran from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, and preliminary figures released by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services showed more than 8.2 million people selected health plans on the federal exchanges during that time - slightly lower than the 8.3 million who did so for 2020. Of these, about 1.83 million were new consumers and about 6.4 million were renewing their coverage from last year. 12 states that run their own exchanges, as well as the District of Columbia, extended the enrollment deadline into January.
Overall enrollment through healthcare.gov increased by about 6.6% for the 2021 open enrollment period relative to the 2020 open enrollment period, Health Affairs reported. Other analysis suggests that the increase may be even greater once Medicaid expansion is accounted for. This is the first and only year when HealthCare.gov enrollment has increased under the Trump administration, reversing a trend where enrollment declined each year beginning in 2016.
Nearly 50,000 agents and brokers were registered with the exchanges to help consumers during the 2021 open enrollment period.
Nolan said her member agents reported they were busier than usual enrolling people in coverage, and for some, the clock ran out. Adding to the volume of enrollees, she said, was confusion caused by CMS sending many enrollees conflicting information about their enrollment status.
“So not only were our agents trying to enroll all these people, but then CMS was sending out communications to them saying they hadn’t selected a plan or paid their premium when they already had done so,” she said. “So agents were telling us many of their clients were calling them back and requesting more help getting that straightened out.”
Nolan said HAFA believes CMS should have provided a longer enrollment period in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There were people who lost their employer-based coverage or had their hours and income cut and qualified for a subsidy. I’m sure Medicaid picked up some people but most of them end up turning to the marketplace for coverage.”
“Enrolling in health insurance isn’t something that only takes a few seconds,” she said. “People spend time with their agent, going over the plans that cover their doctor or cover their prescriptions. It takes time to find the plan that best covers your needs.”
Nolan said some agents who ran out of time were forced to send consumers to the healthcare.gov site to enroll. “I had one member tell me she enrolled 5,000 people during open enrollment and another who said she and her staff were working seven days a week and they still couldn’t get to everyone who needed their help.”
CMS reported this is the third consecutive year of improving market conditions, including lower premiums and more plan options. Three years of declining average benchmark plan premiums have combined to deliver an 8% average premium reduction across states with exchanges using healthcare.gov since the 2018 coverage year. Many consumers who went to healthcare.gov found more options, given that issuer participation increased for the third year in a row.
Susan Rupe is managing editor for InsuranceNewsNet. She formerly served as communications director for an insurance agents' association and was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @INNsusan.