Long Island insurance brokers said they are having a hard time using the state's health exchange website.
"I'm pulling the hair out of my head," said Steve Sekur, an independent insurance agent in Seaford. "There's still a lot of confusion."
State exchange officials, however, said they are hearing no systemwide complaints. Kelly Smith, director of the small-business marketplace for the exchange, called NY State of Health, said most calls they are getting from brokers do not involve how well the website functions.
"We're at the point that, in the majority of calls, we're either able to move them through the process and get them ready to go to work, or we're identifying an issue specific to them," Smith said. She said there are no problems "inherent in the process."
Exchange planners had been counting on brokers, along with state-trained navigators, to play an important role in signing up individuals and small businesses.
Range of problems
Brokers said they continue to be inundated with calls from clients since the marketplace's launch on Oct. 1. But they said they have found the enrollment process onerous and time-consuming and, most important, the website doesn't give them the information they need.
Neil Weingarten, vice president of Conference Associates, an insurance brokerage firm in Patchogue, has trained about 250 brokers so far to be certified to use the online marketplace for individuals and for SHOP, the exchange for small businesses.
"I don't know anybody who has successfully enrolled an individual or someone on SHOP," he said. "I would say it's not consumer-friendly and it should be."
Brokers described a range of problems, from being unable to get certified to enroll clients despite having taken the required courses, to being unable to determine exactly how much plans will cost, to not being able to figure out which doctors are in which plans.
New York State of Health is the state's online insurance marketplace for individuals, families and businesses with 50 or fewer employees, as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. The exchange allows consumers to choose from private insurance plans. Consumers must enroll by Dec. 15 for coverage that begins Jan. 1, but have until March 31 to buy insurance for next year.
Brokers' frustration with New York's state-run exchange echoes that encountered in the exchanges run by the federal government -- with one major difference: Brokers' difficulties with New York's system are not related to the endemic computer glitches that have plagued the federal HealthCare.gov site.
In fact, the state Department of Health said that as last week about 174,000 New Yorkers have completed the application for health insurance. That, the department said, makes up more than 30 percent of the total applications filed nationally. Of those New Yorkers who have applied, 37,030 have enrolled, the department said.
And Danielle Holahan, deputy director of the exchange, said that of about 3,000 brokers who have completed the required courses, 2,300 have registered, meaning they are able to do business on the exchange.
Smith said that initially some brokers were having trouble with the codes used to register. But, she said, many of those issues have been resolved and "the system is performing better and access is quicker."
But Long Island brokers are telling a different story.
"I've told people who have called that if you know exactly what you want, I can help you, but I can't give you any advice," said Jack Glanzer, president of The Granite Insurance Brokerage in Garden City. "I can't tell you what company is better or not."
Karl Washwick, owner of Washwick Agency in Riverhead, agreed. "I'm in the position of not being able to answer the basic questions," he said.
Although Washwick said everyone he has contacted on the state's help line has been eager to be of service, his questions remain unanswered. "I'm used to giving precise answers down to the penny," he said.
Like others, he said he hasn't been able to enroll any clients.
Brokers said they are advising clients to wait a month or so in hopes that the system will become easier to use.
Eileen Falk of Baranello Associates in Great Neck said she is telling her small-business clients who can keep their current health plans to do so "and let's see what happens for the future on the exchange."
Despite their frustration, brokers said they are happy with the calls. "It's massive confusion out there," said Marc Solomon, a partner with The Granite Insurance Brokerage who works in Smithtown. "But a month of confusion is opportunities. More people are calling me than ever."
And brokers said they haven't given up on the exchange.
"I'm seeing the light. This could work," Weingarten said, referring to the idea of an online marketplace. "But," he added, "it has to work."
NYS health exchange
The state health exchange allows consumers to choose from private insurance plans for coverage that begins Jan. 1.
Consumers must enroll by Dec. 15. About 150,000 Long Islanders are expected to sign onto the exchange: healthbenefitexchange.ny.gov
Health insurers on New York's health benefit exchange that will be serving Long Island:
Affinity Health Plan
Empire BlueCross BlueShield
Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York (EmblemHealth)
Healthfirst New York (being offered in Nassau County only)
North Shore-LIJ CareConnect
North Shore-LIJ CareConnect