Four health fairs held in Detroit last week were conducted by Florida insurance agents selling only Blue Cross products, prompting health advocates to urge consumers to beware that not all groups offering assistance on the Michigan Health Exchange are impartial.
Detroit was the first stop in what is planned as a national tour by the Obamacare Enrollment Team, which is actually the Fiorella Insurance Agency Inc., of Stuart, Fla.
There was no mention in public notices, fliers or signs that the fairs were run by insurance agents, rather than impartial federal, state or non-profit helpers. After a two-day investigation, the state Department of Financial and Insurance Services found them to be operating legally because they had non-resident licenses to sell insurance in Michigan.
The group’s website mimicked the colors, logo and symbols of the Obama administration — and didn’t say they’re insurance agents — but was hastily changed this week after a firestorm of criticism from health advocates.
The Michigan Consumers for Healthcare, an organization federally appointed to provide impartial assistance, and other groups, are concerned Detroiters were misled. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan said it was unaware of the group, and the national Blue Cross Blue Shield Association said it does not have a partnership with the Obamacare Enrollment Team.
“Clearly, they’re attempting to win over consumers’ trust by suggesting their activities are federally sanctioned. They’re using the Obama logo and colors on its website, and their website does not disclose they’re a licensed insurance broker,” said Don Hazaert, director of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare. “Unless told otherwise, consumers expect that when they attend an event they’ll be exposed to a full range of insurance products by an impartial enrollment assister.”
Nick Fiorella, vice president of the Fiorella Insurance Agency, said the confusion was unintentional.
“The reason we used the Obamacare name was because we thought our clientele would relate to that name,” Fiorella said Friday. “Do I wish we were more transparent up front? Yes I do. The changes that we made to the website are an effort to be more transparent.
“Detroit was our first event. It was a learning experience.”
The federal Affordable Care Act requires every state to have an online health care exchange, where consumers can view a full range of health insurance options. The marketplaces are a key component of Obamacare, because it’s believed that allowing insurance companies to compete for consumers’ business on the exchanges ultimately will bring down the cost of health insurance.
John Freeman, Michigan director of the national group Know Your Care, which educates people about the federal Affordable Care Act, said the group has known about the Florida brokerage for some time, and the Obamacare Enrollment Team is on its radar.
“It’s a whole new world in terms of competition for the 35-40 million Americans who lack insurance,” he said.
A press release said the Detroit fairs were hosted by “two well-known Detroiters,” Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Great Faith Ministries and entrepreneur LaVan Hawkins. Fiorella said they’re friends of his from Florida. Hawkins once owned a multi-million-dollar restaurant empire that included more than 100 Pizza Huts in Michigan and the upscale Sweet Georgia Brown’s in Greektown. He was released from federal prison in 2010 after serving part of a 33-month sentence for a perjury in a Philadelphia corruption case. Efforts to contact Jackson and Hawkins were unsuccessful.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing issued a press release encouraging Detroiters to attend the fairs. He held a press conference at the first event, saying everybody should sign up for insurance.
“The mayor was not aware of the specific details surrounding the healthcare enrollment fairs. His concern and emphasis is on getting affordable, quality health care coverage for all citizens who are currently uninsured,” Bing spokesman Robert Warfield said in an email to The Detroit News Friday. “While the presenter’s actions do not appear to be illegal, it is unfortunate that there are those who purportedly are misleading citizens about their direct connection to the Affordable Care Act and the Obama Administration.”
At an enrollment fair at the Northwest Activity Center, dozens of volunteers helped consumers fill out two sets of forms.
Kim McMichael-Jones of Detroit was first asked to fill out an “Obamacare Enrollment Questionnaire” with the Obamacare Enrollment Team’s logo at the top and the words “Insuring Michigan.” The form asked for the complete names, Social Security numbers and birth dates for her and every member of her family.
Then she was asked to fill out the government application form for Obamacare, but an additional page was attached by the Obamacare Enrollment Team. McMichael-Jones was asked for her bank account or charge card numbers. She was asked for a signature authorizing Blue Cross to withdraw funds from her bank account or charge her credit card for insurance premiums. She also was asked for the personal ID, password and security questions for her heath insurance marketplace account. She supplied all the information that was requested.
After filling out and signing the the forms, she was approached by Cory Michael Lloyd, who identified himself as a national licensed insurance agent. Lloyd told McMichael-Jones — incorrectly — that there are “only two viable options in Wayne County — Blue Cross and Humana” but Blue Cross was the best deal both for price and because of the size of its network.
“We’ll be enrolling you in Blue Cross,” he said.
Nick Fiorella, who answered the phone at the Obamacare Enrollment Team’s hotline in Florida, said the company is recommending Blue Cross because it’s the best deal in Wayne County.
“There’s nothing wrong with an agent leading someone to a certain plan if that’s in a consumer’s best interest,” Fiorella said. “If for some reason a consumer wanted to buy a policy with a company we didn’t represent, then we would refer them to that company.”
Freeman, of Know Your Care, said he has nothing against insurance agents.
“Its pretty obvious what’s happening. I’m very supportive of Blue Cross marketing insurance. What is a little dicey is that the website looks so similar to the president’s website,” Freeman said. “The style, the color, the symbolism look so identical that it obviously was done, maybe not with the intention of confusing people, but it will have that effect. I am a little appalled.”