U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the partnership with Rite Aid on Monday, along with company chairman John Standley.
Standley said the agents would be available in 2,000 stores. Rite Aid has about 4,600 locations nationwide. He said they will be independent and not affiliated with insurers who are offering health insurance through newly created exchanges, but they will receive commissions if they sign people up for policies. Rite Aid also will receive a small commission for each policy sold, he said.
Sebelius described the partnership as crucial to educating the public about the new law. She said 900,000 uninsured people in New Jersey and about 2 million in New York will be eligible to purchase health insurance through the exchanges.
"We weren't ever going to make this program work from Washington. This has to be an on-the-ground effort," Sebelius said at a news conference inside a Rite Aid in Hoboken. "Americans trust their pharmacists. Often the pharmacist is the on-the-ground health provider people see the most and know the best, so having this critical role in a pharmacy makes wonderful sense."
The agents will be in stores beginning Oct. 1 when the first open enrollment period for the health exchanges begins. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 7 million people currently uninsured will sign up for health insurance during the first six-month period.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, an opponent of the new federal law, held a news conference across the street from where Sebelius spoke and called for a boycott of Rite Aid for, in his view, helping the government "force consumers to buy a product they don't want."
Lonegan said the health care law is already causing chaos in the economy, and cited recent announcements by Time Warner and IBM that they would move retired workers off company health plans and provide money to them to purchase coverage on private exchanges.
"If Rite Aid and the other big companies are so enthusiastic and think this is such a great plan, let it stand on its own two feet," he said. "We shouldn't be forcing consumers to buy a product they don't want. We don't force consumers to buy iPhones, and they sell. We don't force consumers to buy Viagra, but Rite Aid sells it, quite profitably. Let them sell their own product."
Standley said his Pennsylvania-based company isn't taking sides in the political debate over the law.
"At the end of the day our commitment is to our patients and customers," he said. "Open enrollment on the Affordable Care Act starts October 1, so our patients and customers need information, and that's our primary concern. We're not a political organization, we're here to help people navigate the Affordable Care Act, which is the law."