Navigating health insurance

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Buying health insurance through one of the new insurance exchanges can be tricky, but the federal government says it’s here to help.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is funding a program, which is free to consumers, in which so-called navigators are trained to help you to sign up for insurance through an exchange and find out for what financial assistance you might qualify, although they’re forbidden from making recommendations. At press time, the insurance exchanges, which are part of the Affordable Care Act, are expected to begin enrolling consumers in October 2013.

To avoid conflicts of interest, navigators—unlike insurance agents and brokers—can’t receive compensation from insurance companies, according to HHS. They also must disclose whether they sell other lines of insurance on the side or have in the past 5 years.

However, becoming a navigator requires only 30 hours of online training and passing a test—lower standards than what agents and brokers, who are licensed, typically must meet. This is a concern, wrote the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a letter to HHS in May 2013, because the navigators will handle confidential data.

Navigators are useful, because they’re required to provide impartial information about all coverage options, says Elaine Saly of Families USA, which is a health-care consumer advocacy group. However, navigators can’t recommend a plan. If you desire that guidance, you should speak to an agent or broker, Saly says.