An organization run by the top insurance regulators in each state recently issued an alert on the potential for scams related to the marketplaces. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners advised consumers that bogus sites have been spotted and warned people to beware of unsolicited calls by people claiming they need personal information to help them enroll in insurance.
Not all insurance agents are licensed to sell insurance on the exchanges, and buying a policy from one of them could leave consumers without the tax subsidies that make the health insurance affordable. Consumers who seek an insurance professional's help are urged to make sure they know who they're dealing with.
"We all need to be on the lookout right now. We don't want consumers to get confused," said Jessica Waltman of the National Association of Health Underwriters, a trade association representing agents and brokers.
Susan Johnson, the Northwest regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said while some brokers are passionate about helping, others are seeking to take advantage.
In one such case, a state-licensed broker in suburban Seattle bought the domain name washingtonhealthplanfinder.org and built a website with fewer computer glitches than the state's new health insurance marketplace, wahealthplanfinder.org. The brokerage's site told customers: "Welcome to the Exchange!" in big print until the state insurance commissioner asked for changes to avoid confusion.
"You don't want to go to the wrong portal," Johnson said.
The insurance broker, Jeff Lindstrom, said he thought he was being creative when he bought 40-50 domain names to bring in new customers. He said he is not trying to confuse the public. Lindstrom's toll free phone number was also very close to the official call center number, said Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for Washington's insurance commissioner.
In New Hampshire, newhampshirehealthexchange.com offered free price quotes on insurance, but it wasn't affiliated with the state or the federal government, which is running New Hampshire's official online market. The site was taken down days after the state sent a cease-and-desist letter.
"It put itself forward as offering health insurance through the exchange, and consumers are naturally misled by that into thinking it's the government site," said Deputy Insurance Commissioner Alex Feldvebel.
The insurance department took action after getting a complaint from a small business owner who called a phone number on the misleading site.
"He called and ended up talkng to someone who said, 'Unless you make a choice today, the price is going to go up,'" Feldvebel said.
A man who answered the phone declined to comment at the company identified as running the site, Arizona-based Steffen Financial.
In Pennsylvania, a consumer law group this summer tipped off regulators about a licensed broker's website that featured a logo mimicking the state seal and telling visitors: "Welcome to the Pennsylvania Health Exchange!" The broker took down PAhealthexchange.com a day after the state insurance department's enforcement bureau called.
The top online search result using the terms "texas health insurance exchange online" is for Texas Health Insurance Exchange, which sells unsubsidized insurance policies. The broker who owns the website is Scott Thiltgen, a state-licensed insurance agent in Cedar Park, Texas. He said he's also marketing on his Facebook page, Texas Health Insurance Marketplace.
Thiltgen said he's not out to confuse consumers.