Shoppers searching the Internet for health insurance coverage can be forgiven if they are confused. A New York woman waiting to speak to an official Obamacare navigator the other day told me she decided to ask for help because she couldn't understand the policies on the website of the New York exchange. When I asked one of the navigators about this woman's confusion, she assured me all the summary information about the policies was there, but warned "you have to know where to look."
That's the problem – where to look? With the New York exchange, you have to click on the right word and know where it is. But if you complicate the task by looking at other websites that purport to give information while also selling insurance, the difficulty of the job compounds.
Here's a case in point. Browsing the Internet one day for an answer to a straightforward question, I found a site called Obamacare Facts: Dispelling the Myths. At first glance a shopper might think it was an official government site with its red, white and blue logo that gave the impression of the American flag. A small red bar at the top of the page was one tip-off this was no government site. It told visitors to click on the bar to "Join the Obamacare Facts Mailing List." It also asked them to share their Obamacare stories.
The site did offer what appeared to be straightforward information about the Affordable Care Act on topics like keeping your old insurance policy, some basics about signing up for a policy and the four tiers of insurance offered by exchanges – bronze, silver, gold, platinum. And there were links to the official state exchanges. But directing shoppers to exchanges didn't seem to be the site's main purpose. The agenda seems to be selling insurance outside the state exchanges.
To confuse things even more, the website uses the term "Health Insurance Marketplace." That's the same language the Obama administration has tried to use to acquaint the public with the exchanges.
One of the website's landing pages – there seemed to be different ones depending on when I checked – disclosed that it "was created by two guys sick of trying to dig through the talking points." It added that myths and half-truths about health insurance inspired them to explain the facts so they created an "unbiased, grassroots" site with "no funding or agenda." The site also welcomes "all contributions from the public."
The site is loaded with advertisements from health insurance sellers. One button for Empire Blue Cross led me to an Empire sales site. Another labeled Health Insurance Companies led to a page advising they had "found multiple health insurance plan options" for me and asked if I had health conditions like AIDS, depression, heart disease or renal failure. In other words, they were asking prospective customers whether they had preexisting conditions. The Affordable Care Act forbids insurers from using such ailments as a condition for obtaining coverage. So why was the site asking for prospective customers to disclose them?
The site also told visitors they could call a telephone number presumably to get more information. I called and found I was speaking to a customer service rep from Health Markets Insurance Agency, which she said was based in Northern California. She explained the agency was a national company representing over 100 insurance agencies, and they could have a local agent contact me.
To heap further complexity onto the health insurance shopping experience, last week the Obama administration bent the rules for obtaining subsidies to help buy coverage. Previously if you qualified for a subsidy to pay for insurance, you could get one only through the official state exchanges. But now the rules have changed for some shoppers. If you live in one of a handful of states whose state-run exchanges have not been working well, you can still receive a subsidy even if you buy insurance outside the exchange.
That means that shoppers in Oregon, Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts and other states where computer glitches have made it hard to enroll in a plan will be able to buy a policy through the armies of insurance agents scouting for new customers. And to add one more layer of complexity, to get the subsidies consumers will have to pay the full price of the policy and then obtain a premium reduction once their state exchange is on the mend. More red tape?
Chalk this change up to the administration trying to please another group of Americans who've howled about some provision of the law. It may be good politics, but it's not good for those who have to sort through websites like Obamacare Facts and the rules and regulations of the legitimate shopping exchanges just to buy health insurance. This reality is hardly the simplicity that supporters of the ACA had touted to the public.