WebMD Medical News
Laura J. Martin, MD
Oct. 1, 2010 -- A new government web site that allows people to compare health plan coverage and prices goes live today.
Federal officials bill the site as the first one-stop place where people can navigate the complex health insurance market. They also tout it as the latest consumer-friendly feature of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s signature health reform law that has been sagging in political polls.
The site, up since July at healthcare.gov, includes information on more than 4,400 plans from 225 insurance companies operating in every state and the District of Columbia, say officials from the Department of Health and Human Services.
But today marks the first time people can directly compare premiums, deductibles, coverage limits, and other aspects of most health plans available in their area. Publicly funded plans like Medicaid and Medicare are also included.
Health insurers were required to submit detailed information for the site as part of the Affordable Care Act. The information covers plans available to individuals and small businesses shopping for insurance on their own. It does not include information for workers choosing between health plans at larger businesses or big companies.
“The point of all this is to put consumers in charge,” HHS Chief Technology Officer Todd Parker said during a demonstration of the site.
Although officials pointed to new convenience for consumers, they acknowledged that the site has limitations. It lists starting prices for monthly premiums, prices that often go up if you have a pre-existing illness or disease risk factors.
“It’s the sticker price,” said Karen Pollitz, director for consumer support in the HHS’s Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.
But officials also pointed to features listing the percentage of a plan’s customers who pay more than the base monthly premium, as well as the percentage that apply for coverage but are denied.
That last feature drew criticism from insurers. They said it unfairly inflates the number of people who get denied coverage by including people who were denied because they didn’t live in the plan’s coverage area or filled out the application incorrectly.
“Health plans strongly support transparency to give consumers the information they need to make the most informed health care decisions. Unfortunately, the web site uses a fatally flawed definition of denials that presents an inaccurate and misleading picture to consumers,” Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry group, says in a statement.
Under new rules, health plans can no longer deny coverage to children, and they must also allow young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans up to age 26. More insurance regulations are on the way, including rules requiring companies to disclose how much of their revenue they spend on medical care, vs. advertising and administration.
In 2014, the law mandates most people without insurance to buy it and provides a system of credits and subsidies to help people pay the cost. Plans are set to compete directly for customers on national insurance exchanges at that time.
SOURCES:Todd Parker, HHS chief technology officer.Karen Pollitz, director for consumer support, Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans.
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