Insurance agents are talking about reports thatsome Medicare helplines may absorb agents'clients.

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The concern has popped up recently on message boards for membersof the National Association of Health Underwriters and HealthAgents for America.

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Bryan Wampler, a Mississippi-based agent, started one recentonline conversation about the topic.

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One of his Medicare supplement insurance clients lacked basicMedicare B physician and outpatient services coverage. The clientcalled what seemed to be a state-sponsored Medicare call center, toget help with ironing out the Part B coverage problem. The helpline workerresolved the client's Medicare Part B program, then asked, "Whatare your plans for Medicare supplement insurance coverage?"

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The client told the helpline worker what Wampler hadrecommended. The helpline worker transferred the client to aMedicare assistance center that signed the client up for thecoverage Wampler had recommended.

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"I was completely bypassed out of the entire process,"Wampler wrote in the online conversation, which he shared withThinkAdvisor Life/Health. "Even worse, not only did the Medicareagent intercept on the Medicare side, the Medicare representativewent further and even accessed intothe group medical insurance side, which I alsohandle."

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Other agents told Wampler that they had heard of similarproblems cropping up all over the country, and, in some cases, ofinsurers' own call center reps absorbing agents' business.

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Quentin Ledford, a Tennessee-based agent, spotted Wampler'sreport and shared it with HAFA. Ledford said in an email interviewthat he believes some cases of helpline client absorption, such asthe one in which the helpline worker got into Wampler's client'sgroup heath file, may raise compliance questions.

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"This kind of access, without the express writtenconsent of either the client or the employer, is definitely aviolation of privacy and confidentiality laws," Ledford said.

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Other trends may have made agents more conscious of theactivities of insurance helplines, ombudsman programs, and othergovernment-sponsored and nonprofit organization consumer supportprograms.

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In recent years, agents have been watching Affordable Care Actpublic exchange program Navigators and other nonprofit exchangehelpers, such as certified application counselors, move closertoward what agents' think of us their domain.

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In August, for example, CMS offered nonprofit ACA exchangehelpers a webinar that included a presentation on how to helpexchange plan enrollees sign up for Medicare.

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CMS officials saw the webinar as a way to mobilize ACA exchangehelpers to ease older consumers' shift into Medicare.

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Continued on next page >>>

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B. Ronnell Nolan, the president of Health Agents for America,said in an email interview that many HAFA members have concernsabout the idea of the Navigators helping consumers with Medicareenrollment.

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"Our issue is that they do not have a license and should not behelping anyone enroll in Medicare," Nolan said. "Also, on the samewebinar, Navigators were instructed how to evaluate group healthinsurance. Why on God's green earth would a Navigator receiveinstruction on something that a licensed agent works many years tounderstand? It appears [to be] just another way to cut out theagent/broker by using government folks."

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If government officials or Navigators want to enroll people inMedicare, or help employers with group coverage, they should getlicensed as agents or brokers, Nolan said.

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The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency thatoversees Medicare, declined to comment.

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Wampler, Ledford and other agents interviewed view email saidthey are not certain whether cases of Medicare helplines absorbingagents' clients are more common now than it used to be, how commonthe problem really is now, or whether the call centers absorbingthe clients are really part of the federally funded State HealthInsurance Assistance Program or any other specific program.

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Ledford, for example, said he thinks he has been safe from anysticky Medicare helpline problem so far because of the nature ofhis clients.

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"Most of my folks will call me before they do anything," Ledfordsaid. "Most really do not trust anything they are told fromgovernment sources without verifying it."

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Wampler said any cases of helplines competing with agents are aconcern, because so many agents have been shifting into theMedicare plan market in recent years.

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"Not much good if this comes under assault as well," Wamplersaid.

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Allison Bell

Allison Bell, ThinkAdvisor's insurance editor, previously was LifeHealthPro's health insurance editor. She has a bachelor's degree in economics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Think_Allison.