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Swamped Insurance Departments Hope Website Will Answer Overhaul Questions

May 12, 2010

This story also appeared on NPR's health blog, Shots.

Want to understand how the new health law might affect you? Be prepared to spend some time online.

State insurance regulators — swamped by consumers confused about the new health law — are looking forward to one of the earliest concrete pieces of the health overhaul: a consumer-friendly tool on the Web.

By July 1, the Department of Health and Human Services will set up a website that has a section for each state. Consumers and small businesses can consult it when shopping for insurance plans.

The federal website will have every health plan listed that is authorized by each state, a list of the plans' network of providers, the services they offer, who is eligible and how to sign up. The portal will include private plans, Medicare, Medicaid, the State Children's Health Insurance Program and the new high-risk pools. It's considered the first step in what will eventually be the state-based insurance exchanges.

The July 1 deadline for the preliminary Web portal was set in the health care law. With that date fast approaching, HHS recently published rules on how to meet it.

Now the states are scrambling to get ready. "It’s going to be a lot of data entry," said Stephanie Marquis, spokesperson for the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner.

The law spells out a pretty tall order for this portal, but HHS plans to roll it out in phases, so at first it will just outline the basic plan information. But, come fall, more information should be available. "The goal is that by October, you can actually compare multiple plans," said Marquis. "There will be specific links and explanations of what the benefits are and what your rights are."

The portal is one of the parts in the health bill that’s supposed to help protect consumers, by making information clearer and more accessible — something most health plans usually aren't.

But in the meantime, insurance departments like Washington's are fielding "a lot of questions from consumers" and answering them one at a time, Marquis said.

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