If you’ve ever tried to sign up for health insurance on the open market – meaning, not through work or a government program like Medicare – you know how painfully difficult it can be.
Without an insurance broker, just figuring out what insurance options are available, how much they cost and what they cover can be a nightmare. If you can wade through that, the next step is come to grips with the fact that as an insurance pool of one person or one family, your premiums will be relatively high. (More on Time.com: The Five Keys to Health Reform’s Success or Failure)
Well, today the Department of Health and Human Services added data to its already well-functioning new health insurance web site that will make this process easier. (Not less expensive, but easier.)
The site, which boasts some 500 pages of content, contains information about private insurance for individuals and small businesses, Medicaid programs in every state and high-risk pools. There are sub-sections of the web site with information geared to specific populations – young adults, employers, families with children, etc. The site is amazingly easily to navigate and isn’t overcrowded with information. Enter your zip code, insurance status, basic health status, family makeup and a few other details and up pops the insurance plans available to you. Pretty cool, huh?
If this sounds like an ad for the web site, it is. Consumers should go there. Part of the reason the U.S. health insurance system is dysfunctional is that consumers aren’t empowered and there’s not enough transparency. Many people don’t know what their insurance choices are or what laws and regulations affect them. Now they can get this information easily and quickly.
But what was missing from the initial launched of healthcare.gov was the number one thing people care about when shopping for insurance – price. (More on Time.com: Top 10 Health-Care-Reform Players)
Today’s re-launch of healthcare.gov includes information on the lowest premiums available for more than 4,400 private health insurance plans. The site also displays the percentage of people who applied for each plan and were quoted a price above the minimum – the site calls this a “surcharge.” (Until 2014, insurers will still be able to charge people more if they are older or have pre-existing conditions, for instance.) Lastly, the site displays the percentage of people who applied for each policy and were denied.
These metrics can help consumers judge various plans against each other and there’s a tool on healthcare.gov to do just that. Users can select several different plans, click a compare button and see plan design, out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles and more displayed in an easy-to-read format.
The re-launched healthcare.gov is a huge step forward. Never before have consumers had surcharge and denial rate information available at the click of a mouse. The site is also a terrific aggregator not only of private insurance options but also of public insurance options like Medicaid and high-risk pools.
But the site is far from ideal. It’s more like a work in progress. HHS officials said today they don’t know how many private insurance plans aren’t included on the site. (Insurers were excluded if they did not provide plan, pricing, denial and surcharge information to HHS by a recent deadline.) This means healthcare.gov is not comprehensive, although officials expect more plans to added in the coming months. I entered my own information – gender, zip code, etc. – and landed on a web page with this message:
Your search returned zero plans. Please check the information you entered and try again. If you have entered correct data and are still not receiving any search results, note that at this time we do not have complete plan information for all locations. Please check back at a later date since plans are updated on a monthly basis.
Another frustration for consumer is that they can’t actually buy insurance on the federal site, but need to contact insurers directly for individualized quotes and purchase options. But as a first step, the amount of information available on healthcare.gov is impressive, especially considering that it’s been only 7 months since the Affordable Care Act became law.
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