Health Advice



Biden team's tightrope: Reining in rogue Obamacare agents without slowing enrollment

Julie Appleby, KFF Health News, KFF Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

President Joe Biden counts among his accomplishments the record-high number of people, more than 21 million, who enrolled in Obamacare plans this year. Behind the scenes, however, federal regulators are contending with a problem that affects people’s coverage: rogue brokers who have signed people up for Affordable Care Act plans, or switched them into new ones, without their permission.

Fighting the problem presents tension for the administration: how to thwart the bad actors without affecting ACA sign-ups.

Complaints about these unauthorized changes — which can cause affected policyholders to lose access to medical care, pay higher deductibles, or even incur surprise tax bills — rose sharply in recent months, according to brokers who contacted KFF Health News and federal workers who asked not to be identified.

Ronnell Nolan, president and CEO of the trade association Health Agents for America, said her group has suggested to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that it add two-factor authentication to or send text alerts to consumers if an agent tries to access their accounts. But the agency told her it doesn’t always have up-to-date contact information.

“We’ve given them a whole host of ideas,” she said. “They say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ But we don’t mind going an extra step if you can stop this fraud and abuse, because clients are being hurt.”

Some consumers are pursued when they respond to misleading social media marketing ads promising government subsidies, but most have no idea how they fell victim to plan-switching. Problems seem concentrated in the 32 states using the federal exchange.


Federal regulators have declined to say how many complaints about unauthorized sign-ups or plan switches they’ve received, or how many insurance agents they’ve sanctioned as a result. But the problem is big enough that CMS says it’s working on technological and regulatory solutions. Affected consumers and agents have filed a civil lawsuit in federal district court in Florida against private-sector firms allegedly involved in unauthorized switching schemes.

Biden has pushed hard to make permanent the enhanced subsidies first put in place during the COVID pandemic that, along with other steps including increased federal funding for outreach, helped fuel the strong enrollment growth. Biden contrasts his support for the ACA with the stance of former President Donald Trump, who supported attempts to repeal most of the law and presided over funding cuts and declining enrollment.

Most proposed solutions to the rogue-agent problem involve making it more difficult for agents to access policyholder information or requiring wider use of identity questions tied to enrollees’ credit history. The latter could be stumbling blocks for low-income people or those with limited financial records, said Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University.

“That is the knife edge the administration has to walk,” said Corlette, “protecting consumers from fraudulent behavior while at the same time making sure there aren’t too many barriers.”


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