Scott Leavitt spent two decades selling insurance before the Affordable Care Act kicked in, rearranging the universe of health insurance and lowering insurance agents' commissions so drastically that one in four of his peers ducked out, retiring or selling their businesses.
Insurance agents in Idaho and nationally fear plummeting commissions from health insurers. They fear having their jobs usurped by the impartial "navigators" who will be deployed to guide consumers through the new marketplace. In other states, insurance agents have lobbied to make it harder for those navigators to exist.
Leavitt and others are confident they'll have a role in the new system. How much of a role will become evident this fall, when Idaho's health insurance exchange opens up for customers. Agents have some control over their fate, but that fate also will depend on whether Idahoans even buy insurance.
"I'm going to be taking care of my clients until the bitter end," Leavitt says. Reform is "an opportunity for agents to show their value more than ever before."
For the first year of operation, the exchange will look to licensed agents and community groups to help people choose health plans. The navigators won't enter the scene for at least a year, because the exchange got off to a late start and didn't have time for the contracting process.
Meanwhile, agents could position themselves as health care sherpas, leading hundreds of thousands of Idahoans through all the jargon and technicalities. They could land new customers for whom they'll pledge to advocate when a hospital bill is wrong or a claim doesn't get paid. Or, they could discover that the fine for not having insurance - $95 the first year - and the subsidies offered to lower-income Idahoans are so minimal that those Idahoans decide it's cheaper to forgo insurance.
Agents will complete hours upon hours of training before leading exchange shopping trips. (Training isn't required this year, though.) The online certification program is available, but the Idaho Department of Insurance doesn't yet know how many of Idaho's thousands of agents have started it.
The agents will have to market themselves to potential customers, convincing them it's better to rely on an agent in future years than on a navigator, who by law can't make recommendations about particular insurers' policies.
"I think the role of the agent is just getting even more and more important," said David Wilcox, media relations chairman for the Idaho Association of Health Underwriters and owner of Magic Valley Insurance. "The layers of complexity have gone up by a factor of 10. ... [Consumers] are going to be better served by hooking up with a licensed agent they can work with year to year."
At the same time, agents are being asked to do more for less pay. They spend about 60 percent to 80 percent of their time on customer service - helping someone change a policy when a child goes to college, for example - but are now paid less as insurance companies try to cut overhead.
Regence BlueShield of Idaho pays $12 a month now for each individual plan Wilcox handles, he says. Next year, it will be $9 a month.
Leavitt says the compensation for agents in the past three years has already dropped by about 50 percent.
"This is rocking our world," Wilcox says.
But "it's not all bad," he says. "I was telling a client this morning, 'You cannot paint the Affordable Care Act as all good or all bad.' ... Picture a delicious chocolate cake with cow-manure frosting."
The cake looks good, he says, but beware taking a bite with your eyes closed.
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448