1. Health

Florida insurance firm recruits nonprofits to sell Obamacare
Published Dec. 17, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — The Stuart-based Fiorella Insurance Agency made headlines a couple of months ago when it began using the Obamacare Enrollment Team name to insinuate official ties to the health care law and sell policies to unsuspecting people, setting off an ongoing state inquiry.

Now the firm is reaching out to nonprofit organizations that are registered supporters of the Affordable Care Act — so-called "Champions for Coverage" — and trying to get these organizations to help generate leads to sell insurance.

The "champions," some 900 organizations across the country with 50 in Florida, agree to have their names on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website as groups that support the law's implementation.

Two weeks ago, the Tallahassee alumni chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority received a message on its website from a Fiorella representative with "ACA Champion" in the subject line. The message said there is an opportunity to help people get insurance beyond the official website.

"There is another way for people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act," wrote Don Olsen, an insurance agent in Sarasota who identified himself as a Fiorella representative. "One that will donate money to your organization for each person that signs up under your direction. How much? For every 1,000 enrollees means between $50,000 to $100,000 to you. Interested?"

Delta Sigma Theta chapter president Dorcas Washington chose to ignore the email.

"'As a public service organization, we're not interested in advocating for pay," she said Monday. "We advocate because we believe in an issue. And our goal is to educate the community on how they access the Affordable Care Act and services under the Affordable Care Act."

The Public Health Student Association at Florida State University was also asked to partner with the Fiorella firm to sell insurance, but declined.

Sharon Murphy is chief executive officer at McGregor Clinic, which provides medical care for people living with HIV/AIDS in Fort Myers and is one of Florida's "Champions for Coverage." The nonprofit community has been warning about insurance agencies offering money in exchange for generating leads, she said.

"They had not engaged in any partnership and just wanted to give others a heads-up that people were looking on the website and trying to present themselves as a credible business partner but that didn't seem to be the case," Murphy said.

The organizations have balked at the fundraising pitch, Murphy recalled. "That would defeat the purpose of the marketplace, and we're trying to give people a choice."

Nick Fiorella Jr., a vice president, said partnering with third parties to generate new leads is a long-standing industry practice, though he repeatedly avoided answering whether the firm offered money to nonprofits aligned with the Affordable Care Act.

"We definitely pay organizations for leads, and that's within the ethical guidelines of the Department of Insurance," Fiorella said.

He said the firm is helping people register on the health exchange and qualify for subsidies to purchase insurance. Then, he said, agents help clients select the insurance plan that best fits their needs.

The firm is only registered to sell Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida policies. Florida Blue also happens to be the dominant insurer on the state's health exchange operated by the federal government. Fiorella said clients are informed of all options.

"We're out there trying to help consumers get access to the best plans and the best insurance out there, and we're trying to help consumers get enrolled on an ACA compliant plan," Fiorella said.

In October, the Times/Herald wrote about Fiorella's use of the Obamacare Enrollment Team brand to sell policies online and at community forums that attracted mostly African-Americans and the elderly. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater's office launched an investigation as a result of news reports.

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office also received a complaint about the Obamacare Enrollment Team from someone at the Illinois health exchange who worried that consumers could be misled into thinking it had official ties to the health care law.

In response, Fiorella redesigned its websites to make the affiliation clearer and stopped asking for Social Security numbers. Fiorella Jr. also said agents were given new scripts to clear up confusion.

Even so, Atwater's investigation could broaden, a spokeswoman said.

"We would be concerned if there was a violation of the law, such as the involvement of an unlicensed or unregistered agent/navigator, the communication of misinformation, the sale of policies not approved under the ACA, and/or reports of unlawful compensation for policy sales," spokeswoman Ashley Carr wrote via email.

Editor's note: Tia Mitchell is an alumni member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority but is not involved in its Obamacare outreach efforts.