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New HealthCare.gov Site Aims to Teach Americans About Insurance Options

With a contentious midterm election just around the corner, the Obama administration is continuing to tout what health reform will mean for Americans — even turning the president into an online pitchman for the administration’s new health coverage website, healthcare.gov.

In a three-minute commercial/tutorial video, the president guides viewers through a demonstration of how to use the site,which launched July 1, to explore their health insurance options:

“It’s a good resource to understand the new law, and it offers a few simple tools to help you take your health care into your own hands,” the president says.

The site — like some other provisions of the law, such as the high-risk pools — is a temporary measure. It’s designed to last until 2014, when the bulk of the law’s reforms go into effect and it’s replaced by state-run health insurance exchanges.

But in the meantime, the site is intended to help consumers comparison shop for health care. It includes some information about preventive care and a section that offers access to hospital quality data. But the main draw is a searchable database of all the private and public health insurance options available where people live.

Other commercial Web sites — such as ehealthinsurance.com — have offered online information about health plans before. In fact, according to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 27 percent of American adults have gone online to search for information on health insurance. But until now, they’ve found incomplete information. This is the first time that listings of every available health coverage option — public and private — have been available to consumers in one place on the Internet.

Site visitors input their state of residence and answer several questions about their age and health status, and then the search function spits back a list of possible avenues to access insurance — such as COBRA plans, Medicaid and CHIP, the new high-risk insurance pool program, and private-market individual insurance plans.

Then, visitors can drill down deeper, enter their zip code, and get a list of all of the private insurance plans offered in their area, with links to information about the plans’ benefits and the insurance companies’ contact information.

For now, though, one key item is missing — the site does not include information about how much the plans cost — premiums and deductibles. The Department of Health and Human Services says that that is coming in October (although even then the prices will be estimates, because until 2014 insurers are allowed to charge different premiums based on people’s health status.)

Eventually, HHS intends to include even more details on the site, such as the percentage of claims each insurer denies. But health insurers have been fighting that plan; they say that the raw data could be misleading.

“Providing information about claims denials without providing proper context does not begin to tell the whole story,” AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach told the Chicago Tribune.

And the site has already generated other controversy over what some say is a slanted message. Earlier this month, health insurers objected to a graphic on the portion of the site that describes changes to Medicare. The graphic showed a suitcase full of cash, with the words “Stop overpayments to big insurance companies.”

Overall, though, some health technology experts say they find the first iteration of the site impressive.

“This is the government […] putting data together and making it available in the kind of user-friendly and well-thought-out interface that you used to see only from the best private enterprise,” says Dave deBronkart, a health technology blogger and cancer patient who is an activist for patient engagement on the Internet.

Susannah Fox, the associate director of digital strategy at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said she particularly noticed the user feedback button placed prominently on the site, inviting comments from visitors. Fox studies the way that people use the Internet to access health information — she co-authored the study mentioned above. She says that one major change over the past several years is that people are using the Internet less like an “information vending machine” where they plug in a question and get an answer, and more as a place to customize, comment on and share information.

The prominent spot for feedback “to me showed right away that the people behind the Web site understand that health decisions are made not in isolation, but in consultation with friends, family, online reviews […] I’ll be very interested to hear from them more about what kind of comments they’re getting and how they’re using them,” she said.