Originally posted October 03, 2013 by Elizabeth Galentine, additional reporting by Brian Kalish on https://ebn.benefitnews.com

While President Barack Obama has frequently told Americans, “if you like your plan, you can keep it,” that is not ringing true for some small groups across the country. A number of small-group employers are already planning to send their employees to the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges. It’s an outcome predicted by many in the industry, but one surprise to some is the choice of exchange.

Rather than utilize the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP exchanges) that the ACA has set up for employer groups of 50 or fewer full-time employees, some brokers are finding their clients are more interested in sending their employees to the individual exchanges instead.

Kelly Fristoe, owner of Financial Partners in Wichita Falls, Texas, is wary of the fact that his state’s SHOP exchange only has one insurance company participating at this point. Rather than deal with potential consequences of that, he is steering his small-group clients interested in the exchange market toward the individual plans. “We’ve had some small-group customers — not a lot — telling us that they’re going to dump their plan and send their employees to the individual market,” says Fristoe, president of the Texas Association of Health Underwriters.

“So we’ve made some arrangements with those employers to be able to be the agent that sits with those employees. They’re going to let us have time with their employees to educate them on purchasing insurance through the marketplace and qualifying for a subsidy.”

Because he wants to keep those individuals as clients no matter what, Fristoe was particularly “frustrated” Tuesday when technical glitches kept him from checking out the plans on healthcare.gov. “I’m needing to salvage that business and I need to know what those individual rates are so that I can go back to those people and show them how to qualify for a subsidy, if they qualify, and get them enrolled,” he says. “… We’re going to be the agent that’s going to try to salvage that business instead of it going to one of our competitors.”

David Smith, vice president at Ebenconcepts in Morrisville, N.C., agrees that accessing the information on exchange rates is of the utmost importance right now. “You have to recognize that we’re going to have some percentage of very small groups that have already decided they’re not going to offer a group health insurance plan next year,” he says. “So if you have four or five employees a lot of them have made a business decision to not do it, and they just want to get a feel for what it’s going to cost their employees when they make that decision.”

As an administrator for the testing process for agents to be certified with Covered California, Neil Crosby, director of sales at Warner Pacific Insurance Services in Westlake Village, Calif., is surprised that the majority of people attending his classes so far have been serving the individual market. “I’m shocked at how many … are coming to primarily do it individually. There’s so many of them,” he says. “Some of the ones that do individual they also do small group, of course, but a lot of them are representing the individual. I’d say maybe 65% of people in the room.”

A lot of agency owners “want to get a feel for” for the individual market exchanges, says Ebenconcepts’ Smith, because it is very appealing for micro groups, those with nine, 10 employees, to “go to the marketplace for subsidized coverage and maybe pay less for that than they would for their group insurance today.” An employer who is looking at saving $3,500 to $5,000 in premiums by making the switch, “they’re not walking that border, they’re running to that border,” says Smith.

A common sentiment among several brokerages contacted by EBAEBN’ssister publication, in the days following the opening of the exchanges was that they have yet to take a look at the individual or SHOP exchanges. While online enrollment in SHOP exchanges run by the federal government is delayed until Nov. 1, applicants still have the option of submitting over the phone or through the mail.

Some are using the delay as a reason not to take a look at SHOP exchanges yet, but Michael Wolff, chief operations and financial officer at Dickerson Employee Benefits in Los Angeles, cautions against such an approach. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. … I think you want to have all the tools in your tool box. In California at least they have been successful in negotiating with the carriers to come to the table and give their best offers … there’s a chance they are giving a very good rate,” he says.

Wolff references the SHOP exchange tax credit for small businesses with low-wage earners that is available for 2014. “Of course we don’t know how long that will be upheld, but it’s a real tax advantage for next year at least,” he says. “… Why not have it in your portfolio to show? Everybody’s talking about it. You don’t want to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about it, but it’s probably bad because [it’s] the government [offering it].’ Well, maybe some clients will believe you, but it’s a better story if you say, ‘Yeah, I have that, and this is what they offer.’ Why would you not?

“Our model is … to bring a representation of the market to the agent and to the client,” adds Wolff, whose agency is one of only four in the state of California authorized to be a wholesaler for Covered California’s SHOP exchange, which did open on time Oct. 1. “This is a market phenomenon right now that we want to offer and explain. That is our role. We are ready.”

Meanwhile, like millions of others in the last few days, Don Garlitz, executive director of exchange technology provider bswift Exchange Solutions, logged on to a couple of SHOP exchanges to do a little window shopping. However, he could not get past the registration screen. If people are going to purchase such plans, the window shopping experience needs to improve, he says.

“People will look until they [get] what they want. [On Tuesday] I wasn’t able to find any kind of window shopping experience, which will be important for consumers,” he said. “They will not want to go through a 35-45 minute application process just to look at a rate. The call center I spoke with was not sure if there would be window shopping available. That will be an important thing for the federal government to consider.”