Stung by losses under the federal health law, insurers are seeking to sharply limit how policies are sold to individuals in ways that consumer advocates say seem to discriminate against the sickest and could hold down future enrollment.

Anthem, Aetna and Cigna, all among the top health insurers, told brokers they will stop paying them sales commissions to sign up most customers who qualify for new coverage outside the normal enrollment period, according to the companies and broker documents.

The health law allows people who lose other coverage, families with new children and others in certain circumstances to buy insurance after enrollment season ends. In most states the deadline was Jan. 31.

Last year, these “special enrollment” clients were much more expensive than expected because lax enforcement allowed many who didn’t qualify to sign up, insurers said. Nearly a million special-enrollment customers selected plans in the first half of 2015, half of them after losing previous coverage.

In addition, Cigna and Humana, another big health insurer, have ceased paying brokers to sell many higher-benefit “gold” marketplace plans for individuals and families while continuing to pay commissions on more-profitable, lower-benefit “bronze” plans, according to documents and interviews.

Gold plans enroll sicker members than do less comprehensive policies, say insurance experts. As of June, more than 695,000 people had enrolled in gold plans. Those who want to buy individual and family plans can still do so directly through the Affordable Care Act’s online marketplaces or via navigators working for nonprofit groups.

But the retreat from broker sales, which includes last year’s decision by No. 1 carrier UnitedHealthcare to suspend almost any commissions for such business, erodes a pillar of the health law: that insurers must sell to all customers no matter how sick, consumer advocates say.

The insurance industry says it is not discriminating but adjusting to market realities including higher-than-expected medical claims and the failure of a government risk-adjustment program to cover much of that cost.


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