While everyone in the Treasure Valley was chipping ice off their windshields last month, Patricia Somers was planning a business trip to Belize.
Somers had worked as a Boise-based insurance agent for about six years. She was licensed to sell life and health insurance plans for several Idaho insurance companies. She gave up that career and started a travel business, Global Odyssey Trips, in the fall.
Mounting questions about the future of health insurance and shrinking commissions pushed her out of the job, she says. Insurers wanted to cut costs, so they'd pay her $6 for something that paid $20 a few years ago, she says.
Some of her clients were dismayed when she told them their rates were going up, not down, despite health care reform. Some spent so much on health insurance that they had nothing left for life insurance.
Forget this, she thought. "It was depressing," she says.
The Caribbean beckoned. Somers saw clients taking trips even as they chafed at insurance prices. She loved travel herself. She decided to try making a living at it.
"People are traveling, but they're not taking care of what's in their future, or their health," Somers says.
Among health insurance salespeople, it's hard to tell how common Somers' story is.
Tom Shores, president of the Idaho Association of Health Underwriters, says health insurers have cut agents' commissions by 40 to 60 percent. Some agents shifted their focus to Medicare Advantage and other insurance products, "looking for other ways to increase their income," he says.
"One guy in particular, his wife came to him and said, 'You've got six months.' ... He concentrated pretty heavily on Medicare and got his numbers up where he can survive" on the insurance-based income, Shores says.
Shores says he's heard estimates that one-third of agents would leave the business. Many are near retirement age anyway, he says. But there are some who don't want to spend their time fighting for a paycheck and an uncertain role in a state-based health insurance marketplace.
And trying to divine the new playbook for insurance, Shores says, is "like nailing Jell-O to a tree."
The state's two-year cycle for licensing means people like Somers are still on record as agents. And the multidisciplinary nature of the profession means agents frequently toggle among life, disability, dental, health and other insurance, instead of focusing on health insurance alone.
But the Idaho Department of Insurance shows a steady growth in licensed insurance agents - in all kinds of insurance - over the past two years. The number of people licensed to sell health insurance also grew, from 21,788 as of Dec. 31, 2010, to 33,863 as of Dec. 31, 2012.
The growth in licensed agents may be due in part to health insurance call centers, says Darrald Bean, a Boise agent. An agent working in a call center out of Des Moines must have an Idaho license to do business with Idaho customers, Bean says.
Meanwhile, Somers is enjoying her new job, planning all-inclusive, chaperoned vacations for small groups.
"I see people happy again," she says.
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448