With the Affordable Care Act's three-month enrollment starting next week, ACA navigators around the country are girding to help consumers with a wide range of challenges in selecting and signing up for an individual-market health plan.
Even in optimal circumstances, many consumers find it hard to understand their choices and pick a plan that best meets their needs on price, out-of-pocket costs, and provider network. Experts say widespread assistance from well-trained navigators and assisters could prove critical in determining whether more younger, healthier Americans sign up for coverage, thus stabilizing the ACA exchanges in 2017.
Complicating the navigators' job, however, is the proliferation of insurance shopping websites with URLs similar to the federal government's official HealthCare.gov enrollment site, such as healthcare.com. After visiting such sites, consumers sometimes get flooded with sales pitches from brokers. Some of these pitches are for products that are not ACA-compliant or are not even insurance plans.
That experience may unsettle and anger people, and even sour them on the ACA insurance marketplace.
That's what happened earlier this year to John Erickson, a 59-year-old Kenosha resident who retired from his factory job for health reasons and needed health insurance. He went on the Internet and intended to visit HealthCare.gov. Instead, he typed in healthcare.com.
Near the bottom of the site's home page, in inconspicuous print, is a line stating: “We're not the government website.”
“I got slammed with a million emails from all these companies,” Erickson said. “It was terrible for a couple of months. I was getting all these phone calls at night. I was ready to change my phone number.”
After floundering in the insurance wilderness for a while, he eventually found Molina Healthcare, which assisted him in signing up for a subsidized Molina plan through HealthCare.gov.
Similarly, Michael Anderson, a retired police officer in Scottsdale, Ariz., said he went on what he thought was the HealthCare.gov site to shop for coverage after he recently retired. But he apparently clicked on a copycat site and got inundated with bogus offers. He bought what he later realized was a medical discount plan, not a real health plan, and quickly canceled it. He ended up purchasing an unsubsidized plan through eHealth, a large online broker, which he's satisfied with.
“It was the first time I was buying health insurance on my own, and the whole process was very frustrating,” Anderson said.
These stories frustrate Obamacare enrollment assisters like Katherine Gaulke, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, who said some of her member clinics' clients get lost when they mistakenly go to healthcare.com or other sites with names similar to HealthCare.gov. “Getting rid of that site would help us so much,” she said.
Additional sites with URLs that could waylay shoppers include obamacareplans.com, obama-care.org, health-insurance.com, and health-care-insurance.com
Jeff Smedsrud, co-founder of Miami-based healthcare.com, rejects the argument that his site confuses consumers. He said it's a comparison search site allowing people to shop and compare ACA-compliant plans both on and off the exchanges, Medicare Advantage plans, and Medicare supplemental plans. “I don't think it happens very much now with people mistaking us for HealthCare.gov,” he said. “It might have happened at first when the federal exchange was in disarray.”
Healthcare.com was launched under its current ownership in 2014. The original owners acquired the domain name in 2006. “It was a valuable property to have even before the ACA,” Smedsrud said. “Why the government chose a name similar to ours, we don't know.”
Unlike ehealth, Healthcare.com doesn't directly sell plans. Instead, it lets consumers fill out a lead form authorizing the company to pass their name along to participating agents, brokers, call centers, and insurers, who then follow up with the customer. The company gets paid for each lead. “We help people get health insurance, and our customers tell us we do a good job,” he said.
The healthcare.com website features ads from insurers selling short-term products and other plans that are not ACA-compliant. But it doesn't knowingly refer shoppers to brokers selling something like a medical discount plan, Smedsrud said.
He also stressed that his company only sells a customer's name to one broker or call center. So the customer wouldn't receive calls from multiple brokers, like Erickson and Anderson did -- “unless that call center or broker gave that name to a variety of agents,” Smedsrud added.
Healthcare.com does its best to monitor the conduct and results of its participating broker and insurance partners, but some turn out to be less desirable, he said. “We have quit doing business with a few people. The quality experience wasn't there.”
Nevertheless, enrollment navigators around the country say they've worked with plenty of consumers who mistakenly visited a commercial site they thought was the official federal website and then got swamped by calls from brokers. The navigators try to schedule an in-person appointment with those consumers to cut through the misinformation and help them accurately understand their options.
In some cases, the navigators themselves have received such calls, including offers of coverage outside the annual open enrollment window. “I have certainly gotten solicitation calls telling me I can get insurance anytime,” said Jodi Ray, director of Florida Covering Kids & Families, which has a federal grant to provide navigation services throughout Florida. “The minute I start asking smart questions, they hang up.”
Sonia White, who heads navigator services at the Community Council of Great Dallas, which serves 56 Texas counties under a federal navigator grant, said she wasn't familiar with healthcare.com before I asked her about it. When she looked at the site, she found it potentially confusing to consumers. “The logo and the color scheme are very similar to the old HealthCare.gov logo and color scheme,” she said. “Choosing health insurance is confusing enough, and to blur it is unfortunate.”
The CMS did not respond to requests for comment about potentially misleading enrollment websites. But White said she's discussed the issue with the CMS and was told they are aware of the problem. She plans to ask the CMS and the Texas Department of Insurance to investigate the healthcare.com website.
Healthcare providers and ACA supporters believe much greater efforts are needed to educate consumers about their insurance options and offer them in-person help in signing up for coverage. Misleading websites and dubious sales efforts do not help, they argue.
“We're going to be educating people about the marketplace, health insurance, tax credits, and cost sharing for a long time, because it's complicated,” Ray said. “Those websites are just another source of confusion.”