July 26, 2013

New health insurance markets: Not like Travelocity

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Christine Ferguson, director of the Rhode Island health insurance exchange, takes part in a meeting at the Statehouse in Providence, R.I. The Rhode Island marketplace will postpone a feature that allows consumers to enter the names of their doctors and instantly find out what insurance plans they accept.


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The IRS will calculate the maximum health insurance subsidy that you're entitled to. It's set up as a tax credit, so the taxman can come back to collect if you claim too much. Discrepancies between the information you submit and what's in government records will take time to straighten out.

Once you've got your subsidy nailed down, then you're ready to pick a plan. Once you do that, the U.S. Treasury will send your insurer a payment on your behalf, and you'll pay any difference. Coverage begins Jan 1.

Experts say the technology to facilitate online shopping among health plans is difficult to engineer. Some online tools are getting pared back and the refusal of congressional Republicans to provide more implementation funds for "Obamacare" probably isn't helping. Some examples:

— The Rhode Island marketplace will postpone a feature that allows consumers to enter the names of their doctors and instantly find out what insurance plans they accept. Consumer advocates say such a tool is important to help winnow choices. Instead, shoppers will be steered to the doctor directories of individual plans. The federally run marketplaces will also lack "all-plan" doctor directories.

— The marketplace in Washington state is delaying its online-chat capability, as well mobile device features that would enable consumers to check their enrollment status. "These are some of the top items that we will focus on for the next version," said spokesman Michael Marchand.

— The Minnesota exchange is delaying a feature that would allow consumers to update their coverage to reflect life events such as the birth of a baby because that information won't be needed right when sign-up begins.

— It's unclear how sophisticated online calculators will be at helping consumers pick the best-value plan. For the federally run exchanges, officials said the calculator will automatically subtract the consumer's tax credit from plan premiums — a help. But it won't provide an estimate of likely out-of-pocket costs that the plan doesn't cover, a feature consumer advocates say is closer to the true bottom line.

State officials say things will improve as the new program takes root.

With time, "it's going to get a lot more user friendly and effective," said Ferguson, the Rhode Island director. "Were there things I would have liked to see delivered on Oct. 1 that are going to be delayed? Yes. But is that something that I think is horrible? No."


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