Tony Hausner searched on Google Tuesday for the Maryland Health Connection, the state's new online insurance marketplace, and was pleased that he was able to access the site that had crashed earlier in the day.
But Hausner of Silver Spring inadvertently landed on an insurance broker website, maryland-health-connection.com, that features the Maryland Health Connection logo and a map of the state.
"It fooled me at first," said Hausner, a volunteer who had been visiting the real exchange website for about a month.
On Wednesday, state regulators issued an order against the website's owner, saying the web address is misleading and likely to confuse consumers. They also said the use of the exchange's logo on marketing materials by brokers and agents is prohibited.
Health care exchanges across the country opened for business on Tuesday, serving as a marketplace where consumers can shop for private insurance. For Marylanders, there is only one true website for the state's exchange — marylandhealthconnection.gov. It's not affiliated with other sites.
As part of its enrollment effort, though, the Maryland Health Connection trained more than 800 brokers to sell policies on the exchange for consumers who want advice on selecting insurance. Brokers are compensated by the insurance companies.
People searching online in recent days for Maryland's exchange might have come across other websites, some of which belong to insurance brokers.
Potomac broker Eric Case runs the website that Hausner encountered. He said he would immediately comply with the order from the Maryland Insurance Administration.
According to the order, Case must pay a $500 penalty and discontinue the use and display of the "maryland-health-connection.com" website by 5 p.m. Thursday.
"This was in no way a willful intent" to confuse consumers, said Case, adding that he would request a hearing to get clarification on the exchange's marketing guidelines. "Our goal and intent is to be supportive of the program."
Case said he thought his site followed exchange guidelines, including the posting a seal at the top that he's an authorized insurance broker. The site discloses it's a "collection of brokers," and notes on the bottom that it is "not a state agency or an affiliate of Maryland Health Connection."
But the site fooled Alan Schulman, a Rockville broker and media chairman with the Maryland Association of Health Underwriters.
"That is the site," said Schulman, believing Case's website was the official Maryland Health Connection.
Hausner said he reported the site to state officials out of concern that it will confuse consumers.
Case said he hasn't encountered any confusion from consumers calling the site.
The Affordable Care Act is complex enough, but additional players touting insurance online could cloud the picture, particularly for those who never purchased insurance before.
"It was very confusing to me," said Bryce Butler of Baltimore, who tried to get a preview of rates by going to the exchange's website before it opened Oct. 1.
"I Googled it. When I put in 'Maryland health exchange' I got all these other websites that are private brokers," said Butler, 64, the director of In-Flight Theater.
One of the sites sent him a quote for insurance that his doctor doesn't take, Butler said.
The Maryland Health Connection said in an email that brokers must be authorized to sell plans through the exchange and are given a seal to show that they have received the necessary training to do so. They can use the seal in marketing materials, but not the Maryland Health Connection logo, the exchange said.
The Maryland Insurance Administration said its compliance and enforcement unit has contacted other businesses about websites whose names closely resemble the Maryland Health Connection or the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, which runs the state's site. In those cases, the businesses took down the sites, the agency said.
One site that came down this week was the Maryland Health Insurance Exchange, which was set up in the spring for Owings Mills broker Gary Becker. The broker, who was trained to sell exchange policies, said he chose the name because it seemed the most relevant for people searching for information.
Becker had the website taken down Tuesday after being notified by the state insurance regulator that the site, which featured part of the state flag, might confuse consumers.
Schulman, with the underwriters association, said brokers will be setting up sites. To avoid confusion, consumers calling a phone number on a website should ask upfront whether the person is a broker or one of the volunteers working for the exchange or a state employee, he said.
"The easiest answer is to go to the official website so then you know you are in the right place," said Kim Cammarata, director of the Maryland attorney general's health education and advocacy unit.
The Maryland Insurance Administration also recommends that consumers call 410-468-2200 to report any potentially misleading or confusing sites.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun