Raising concerns about consumer privacy, California's health exchange has given insurance agents the names and contact information for tens of thousands of people who went online to check out coverage but didn't ask to be contacted.
The Covered California exchange said it started handing out this consumer information this week as part of a pilot program to help people enroll ahead of a Dec. 23 deadline to have health insurance in place by Jan. 1.
State officials said they are only trying to help potential customers find insurance and sign up in time. But some insurance brokers and consumers who were contacted said they were astonished by the state's move.
"I'm shocked and dumbfounded," said Sam Smith, an Encino insurance broker and president of the California Assn. of Health Underwriters, an industry group.
Smith said he was under the impression from the exchange that these consumers had requested assistance. He received the names of two consumers this week but has not yet contacted them.
"These people would have a legitimate complaint," Smith said.
The names provided include people who started an insurance application on the Covered California website since enrollment launched Oct. 1, but for whatever reason never picked a health plan or completed the sign-up process.
The state said it provided information on tens of thousands of people who logged into the state's website, but it didn't know the exact number.
The exchange said agents were given names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses if available.
No other information on the application, such as Social Security numbers, income and other personal details, was shared, according to the exchange.
Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, acknowledged that these consumers did not ask to be contacted by the state or its certified insurance agents. But he said the outreach program still complies with privacy laws and it was reviewed by the exchange's legal counsel.
"I can imagine some people may be upset," Lee said in an interview Friday. "But I can see a lot of people will be comforted and relieved at getting the help they need to navigate a confusing process."
Robert Blatt, a technology consultant in Ventura County, said he didn't appreciate receiving an email Thursday from a local agent asking him about his unfinished application with Covered California.
He said it violates his privacy, and he wondered what other details on his application were shared with the agent.
"You can't do this," Blatt said. "For a government agency to release this information to an outside person is a major issue."
In the email Blatt received, the local agent said, "your contact information was provided to me by Covered California since your application is not yet finalized, however, you have been determined as eligible by Covered California."
Blatt said he wasn't interested in getting coverage through the exchange anymore after determining he had a better deal with his existing insurance policy.
Through mid-November, Covered California signed up nearly 80,000 people in private health plans and an additional 140,000 people qualified for Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid program.
But the state has been struggling to deal with a surge of applicants ahead of the Dec. 23 deadline, with many people expressing frustration with long wait times and website problems. Open enrollment continues through March 31.
In light of those concerns, Lee said, the state wanted to offer more assistance to people through its network of 7,700 insurance agents who are trained and certified to enroll people.
Lee said those certified agents cannot use this consumer information for any other purposes or to try to sell other products.
Covered California shared the consumer data with four major insurance agencies that are coordinating enrollment efforts by agents statewide. Those agencies then asked the state's certified agents whether they wanted to receive any of these names.
An official at Warner Pacific Insurance Services in Westlake Village, one of the four agencies, said he hadn't received any negative feedback.
"We haven't heard any complaints yet," said Neil Crosby, director of sales at Warner Pacific. "But I can see how someone would be upset by this."