WHEELING -- Insurance brokers in Illinois vented their frustrations Wednesday with the troubled rollout of President Barack Obama's health care law and the crippled federal website, HealthCare.gov.
Dozens attended a meeting with Gov. Pat Quinn's aide Max Fletcher, a policy analyst for the Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace. Fletcher said Illinois officials also are frustrated but have no control over the federal website and don't know when it will be fixed. Illinois chose to rely on the federal site, an online marketplace to compare and buy insurance, rather than setting up its own.
"Call Obama!" some brokers shouted in jest. Fletcher responded, to resigned laughs: "Obama doesn't take my calls."
Some of the brokers, who were gathering for a meeting of the Chicago and Northeastern Illinois Association of Health Underwriters, also are worried about threats to their incomes. Their already-shrinking commissions from insurance companies are dwindling further because of the health care law's requirement for insurers to reduce administrative costs and put more dollars into medical care.
Some brokers also see a threat from the law's navigator program, which trains outreach workers to help consumers navigate the process of applying for insurance. The government-funded navigators are barred by Illinois law from advising consumers about which insurance policies to buy, but they still edge uncomfortably close to the brokers' traditional turf, brokers said.
"I don't think the people know. They think the navigators are (insurance) agents," said Charles Wheeler, a broker based in McHenry. "They're providing a valuable service, but it should be in partnership with the broker community."
Other brokers see a silver lining in the health law: It provides opportunities to reach new customers, people who haven't been able to afford insurance before. At the meeting, they pushed Fletcher to help them publicize how brokers can help people and small businesses shop for health insurance, and emphasized that brokers will be there to help their clients resolve claim disputes once people gain coverage.
"If we don't get our message out, we as an industry are going to die," said Rich Fahn, a broker in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook.
Another broker, Shelley Schiff of Glenview, said she's inundated with phone calls from clients who are uninformed. People well above the poverty line have asked her where they can get their "Obamacare" health insurance for free. While the law provides tax credits to help make insurance more affordable, middle-class consumers still will have to pay at least a portion of the cost to get coverage.
"Absolute ignorance and hysteria," Schiff said. "And these are educated people."
Schiff wants more attention devoted to educating the public about the law.
Fletcher said that Illinois is working on a search tool to help consumers find an insurance broker who can help them. But the recent government shutdown slowed the process of getting a list from the federal government of trained brokers. That means the web-based search tool has been delayed, he said.
"Frankly we wish we were running our own (marketplace) website," Fletcher said.
He urged the brokers to call on their legislators to support a state-run health insurance marketplace, which Quinn has supported for three years. Fletcher said Illinois could do a better job running its own system than the federal government has.
Legislation to authorize a state-run online marketplace passed in the Illinois Senate last spring, but it wasn't called for a vote in the House. Fletcher conceded that passing a bill is not likely to be a serious consideration in Springfield during the current veto session.