The newest version of Healthcare.gov, the website used to sign up for health insurance coverage on the federal exchange, is now open for business. The open enrollment period for 2016 began on Sunday, November 1st and will run until January 31st, 2016 — although if you want your coverage to begin on January 1st, the deadline is December 15th, 2016.
The third year of open enrollment begins with fewer fundamental issues about the operation of Healthcare.gov and more issues about how to make healthcare insurance shopping a more user-friendly experience. To that end, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has introduced two new features into the website that should make it easier for consumers to shop around and locate the plans they might need.
- Searching Your Preferences – A frequent complaint of Obamacare and the exchange shopping experience is uncertainty about whether your preferences are covered under your existing plan. Thanks to confusion or outright misinformation, consumers often found out after signing up for a plan that their favorite healthcare providers and hospital facilities were not covered. In some cases, necessary prescription drugs were not covered in a plan switch. To verify coverage, you had to go to the website of each individual consumer — a time-consuming process at best.
With the improved website, you will be able to search and find out which plans cover your favorite physician, hospital, or required prescription drugs by simply typing in the name. You can then decide whether retaining your preferences is worth the potentially higher cost associated with keeping them. This assumes that the website has up-to-date information and no typos on names, so we suggest you verify independently by calling your doctor and hospital before making your final purchase.
- Cost Estimation and Comparison – The previous version of the website sorted by premium costs and tended to steer people toward the least expensive premiums. Some consumers did not make the connection that lower premiums mean higher deductibles and were surprised at how much their healthcare expenses increased with their new plans. Even when the connection was made, average healthcare consumers had difficulty assessing whether a higher deductible/lower premium plan or a lower deductible/higher premium plan made sense for their family.
To help consumers decide, the website will contain cost estimation capabilities balancing all the collective costs. The website calculates costs based on basic information (age, income, sex, zip code, etc.) along with input on whether you expect your health care costs to be low, medium, or high during 2016. Premiums are displayed including any tax credits for which you qualify, but you can choose to see the full price if you like.
You can run scenarios using different healthcare plans and levels of use with each plan and compare your other estimated health care costs along with premiums and deductibles to get a more complete comparison of how a plan fits your needs. Unfortunately, the site does not allow you to sort by total costs — you have to write those down on your own and compare them separately.
Ease of shopping is expected to be critical, because many plans have changed premiums and/or terms. For example, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, benchmark silver plan price changes range throughout the states from a 35% increase to a 13% decline.
To get the best deal, you are likely going to have to change plans. At the very least, you should take advantage of the new website tools and shop around. You may be pleasantly surprised by your options.