Consumers browsing HealthCare.gov for health insurance ahead of next week's open-enrollment period will immediately notice a couple of items: a quicker window-shopping experience and many more high-deductible health plan options.
The federal government's exchange website launched its window-shopping feature Sunday, a week before the Affordable Care Act's third open-enrollment period starts Nov. 1. The CMS touted the retooled site last week, although highly anticipated features such as finding in-network providers and covered prescription drugs won't immediately be available.
Prospective insurance shoppers enter their ZIP code and household information before they are shuffled to a page that shows all the health plan options and prices in their area. A new feature allows people to guess how much medical care they will use throughout the year. The government also made pop-up boxes to explain what benefits are mandatory in all plans, and what the different insurance terms mean.
Clicking on specific plans shows more details about the monthly premium, deductible, out-of-pocket maximum, copayments and coinsurance amounts. HealthCare.gov also includes separate links to the plan's provider directory and summary of benefits.
HealthCare.gov has some broken links, including embedded links that go to insurance companies' websites. But the site overall loads quickly and has not yet crashed, a far cry from the first open enrollment that started in 2013.
However, some consumers may feel inundated by data searching HealthCare.gov on their own, which is why many brokers and navigators help people through the process. “You still have a lot of information being thrown at consumers through the process,” said Kev Coleman, the head of research at HealthPocket. “That can be a bit overwhelming.”
Most enrollees on the federal exchange have chosen bronze or silver plans due to their relatively lower premiums. The popularity of those plans appears to have carried over into the 2016 season. But a majority of the options have high deductibles in which people could potentially be on the hook for large medical expenses before insurance kicks in.
For instance, a family of four living in Tinley Park, Ill., making $90,000 a year has 69 health plan options available for 2016. Of that total, 58 are considered to be high-deductible plans. A high-deductible plan has an annual deductible of $1,300 for individuals and $2,600 for families, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
A 27-year-old woman in Austin, Texas, with a $30,000 salary is eligible for a small monthly subsidy to lower her premium. She can choose from 64 different plans, with 52 of those being high-deductible options.
Studies have shown that when it comes to health insurance, the monthly price dictates what many people will do. The ACA's premium subsidies also make the upfront coverage more affordable for millions of people. But since many ACA plans compete on lower premiums, those plans usually have higher out-of-pocket obligations to balance out the risk.
“Consumers can't just shop on premium,” Coleman said. “Think about your healthcare usage. Make sure that factors into your cost equation.”
A group called Clear Choices, formed by AARP, Aetna and other organizations, is pushing the CMS to make sure the 2016 open enrollment goes as smoothly as the window shopping. The searchable doctor directory and drug coverage lists sit atop the group's requests.
“We believe that apt comparison tools are critical for making sure every patient selects the best plan for his or her specific needs,” Clear Choices said in a news release. Clear Choices is part of the Council for Affordable Health Coverage, an organization funded by various healthcare companies, trade associations and conservative business groups.
Open enrollment ends Jan. 31, 2016. People must enroll in an exchange plan by Dec. 15 for coverage to start Jan. 1. HHS has predicted slow growth in the upcoming sign-up period, and much will depend on whether consumers would rather buy insurance or pay a steeper tax penalty. For next year, adults without health insurance through their jobs or elsewhere have to pay $695 per person or 2.5% of annual household income, whichever is higher. The maximum penalty for a family is $2,085.