Topics:

Websites Step Up To Fill Federal Void

Nov 25, 2013

This story was produced in partnership with

Almost two months after its inglorious rollout, the healthcare.gov website appears to be slowly recuperating. But even if it is 80 percent healed by November's end, as some public statements suggest, it likely won't be the promised seamless shopping experience where consumers can compare plans and prices and see if they qualify for premium and cost-sharing subsidies.

Several websites have stepped into the breach and are helping consumers unravel the differences among the various health insurance policies.

When it comes to southeastern Pennsylvania, you can find Independence Blue Cross plans and a subsidy calculator at www.ibx4you.com/ which was built using real, regional market prices.

"If you go to any of the national sites, [the estimate] will be based on the national silver plan cost," said Paula Sunshine, IBC's vice president for consumer affairs. "Our calculator uses the second-lowest-priced silver plan in our market area, so it will represent more accurately what you are going to see [at] the federal site."

Using information such as household income, the number of children, and the number and ages of the adults covered by the plan, the calculator determines subsidy eligibility. Those deemed eligible are given the amount of monthly premium assistance as well as the household's federal poverty level percentage. Both figures are needed to get the cost-sharing subsidy.

People qualifying for a subsidy must go to the federal marketplace to buy health insurance. Those who aren't eligible can shop, enroll, and buy a policy right on IBC's website.

The site is already getting 10,000 hits a month, Sunshine said. IBC's calculator will also be available soon as a mobile app that will include live-chat and click-to-call options.

"We're trying to intercept you before you even talk to an agent and put capabilities on your phone at your fingertips, including our subsidy calculator," Sunshine said.

ValuePenguin.com took flight in June to give health insurance shoppers an idea what plans would look like when the marketplace opened. Extrapolating from the data insurers must file with states, Jonathan Wu and his partners accurately decoded premium costs and constructed exchanges for 10 states. But when Healthcare.gov failed to function adequately on Oct. 1, Wu and his partners expanded their tool nationwide.

"The one universal that we are seeing is that people are really hungry for information," Wu said, noting that 150,000 people had visited the site. "They want to understand what the prices are and what benefits are and how they should think about health insurance. Our goal is to provide as much of that as possible."

Wu's team has been able to accurately calculate subsidy and premium amounts for various age groups, usually to within a dollar. The website also houses benefit information for 70 percent of plans in the marketplace, something Wu said similar calculators don't have.

"A lot of people find these plan names on Healthcare.gov or some other site that talk about premiums, but they can't find the benefits," Wu said. "And that is actually the second part of the equation and, in fact, is more important than just the premiums."

ValuePenguin.com is an information-only site, but provides links to ehealthinsurance.com and other health insurers for people interested in buying a policy. Wu and company are working on a program to help consumers choose a health insurance plan.

"What we would really like to do is create a framework for how people should think about how the benefits are laid out in particular plans," Wu said, "and why you may want to chose a platinum plan versus a catastrophic or bronze plan."

InsuranceQuotes.com, among the newest subsidy calculators, began building its site in the spring. The website, owned by Bankrate.com, went live Nov. 11.

"It's different from a lot of calculators because we don't just give you a number," said Laura Adams, InsuranceQuote.com's senior insurance analyst. "You see the options and go ahead and get enrolled."

Like many calculators, InsuranceQuote.com is designed for shopping and as an information source and is not licensed to sell health insurance. A shopper is linked to getinsured.com, a Web broker connected to the federal data hub where the consumer's income, citizenship, and residency status are verified and the transaction can be completed.

"What we are providing is what we consider a really simple user interface to take people through the process," Adams said. "This tool not only allows consumers to figure out if they are eligible for a subsidy, but also if they are eligible for other subsidized health options, and then takes them directly to the site where they would actually enroll." Online Calculators

The health insurance and subsidy calculator websites are:

HealthSherpa www.thehealthsherpa.com/

ValuePenguin www.valuepenguin.com/

InsuranceQuotes.com www.insurancequotes.com/health/how-to-save-on-obamacare

Independence Blue Cross www.ibx4you.com/

We want to hear from you: Contact Kaiser Health News