HEALTH CARE

Best Way to Navigate Online Health Exchanges: Go Offline

The health insurance exchanges finally made their big debut. Small-business shoppers are not impressed.
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So it turns out that lots of people were eager to shop--or at least window-shop--in the new healthcare marketplaces, which opened yesterday. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that 4.7 million people visited the federal portal HealthCare.gov in the first 24 hours and that 190,000 people rang government call centers. 

And so it was that government officials learned what many a startup has discovered: tons of traffic on opening day is a decidedly mixed bag.

All that traffic was a bit overwhelming for the newly created systems. Throughout the day, the chat board of the Certified Employee Benefits Specialists lit up with reports of glitches, slowdowns, and temporary shutdowns in many states. A broker in the New York tri-state area described the day as, “a disaster. With the solid four hours delay on the Connecticut, New York, and federal sites, we had significant technological difficulties getting access to any of the exchange information. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.” Only Colorado and California’s exchanges seemed to be working well.

“This is one of the least surprising things I’ve seen in a while,” says Paul Ashley, a benefits advisor in Indianapolis. “A lot of people with no intention of buying plans are checking in to see what it’s all about. It’s like rubbernecking on the highway, and it will get worse before it gets better.”

Meanwhile, for those who managed to get through, the experience was less than encouraging. Small-business owners shopping at Healthcare.gov--the default portal for customers in the 36 states that are letting the federal government manage their exchanges--initially were met with an error message. Later in the day, that was replaced by a table of unsorted data with no instructions for using it.

That seems to be fixed now--and the searchable database, with instructions, works nicely, allowing you to sort through plans by state, county, plan level, carrier, and premiums. You will not be able to actually enroll online until November 1--but you can do so by mail or fax now.

In the remaining states and the District of Columbia, which are running their own exchanges, the online shopping experience for employers was, well, weird--a far cry from the fluid search-select-click-buy dynamic we’ve all grown accustomed to. Many exchanges are not even functioning as online entities. Hawaii Health Connector, for example, you can file an application to determine if your business is eligible to use the insurance marketplace. Then, according to the site, “The Connector will contact you in the coming weeks…to inform you of your eligibility and plan options.”

Covered California promises that “everything an employer needs to compare plans is available online, by phone or from a Covered California Certified Insurance Agent.” Yet I could find no apparent way to see what small-business plans were available. A PDF link for the “Small Business Plan Section” told me that there is an “update coming soon.” On Connecticut’s exchange--tagline: “Change Is Here”--you could find applications in PDF format, with directions to speak to “your broker or accountant” to learn more. (The search function for individuals, on the other hand, worked impressively well.) Cover Oregon’s site directs employers to find an agent, via a provided link, to look at rates and start an application.

Other state-run sites just make you jump through some hoops before you can actually see anything. In Colorado, Massachusetts‎, Kentucky, and D.C., you must create an account, complete with business address, tax ID numbers, security questions, and--in the case of DC, a ridiculously complicated password--just to browse. Tony Hsieh would not be pleased.

It’s not all bleak: New York’s small-business exchange is working beautifully today, offering a preview of available rates and a link to register with more details to get actual quotes. Elsewhere, for now, it may make the most sense to find a real person to help walk you through the process. You can check for local advisers here: https://localhelp.healthcare.gov

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Oct 2, 2013

ADAM BLUESTEIN

Adam Bluestein is a frequent contributor to Inc., writing about health care, innovation, and new technology. He lives with his wife and two children in Burlington, Vermont.




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