The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under the authority of President Barack Obama, unveiled an innovative new online tool to help consumers take control of their health care by connecting them to new information and resources that will help them access quality, affordable health care coverage.  As stipulated by the Affordable Care Act, HealthCare.gov is the first website to provide consumers with both public and private health coverage options tailored specifically for their needs in a single, easy-to-use tool.

HealthCare.gov helps consumers take control of their health care and make the choices that are right for them, by putting the power of information at their fingertips,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “For too long, the insurance market has been confusing and hard to navigate.  HealthCare.gov makes it easy for consumers and small businesses to compare health insurance plans in both the public and the private sector and find other important health care information.”

HealthCare.gov is the first central database of health coverage options, combining information about public programs, from Medicare to the new Pre-Existing Conditions Insurance Plan, with information from more than 1,000 private insurance plans. Consumers can receive information about options specific to their life situation and local community. In addition, the website will be a one-stop-shop for information about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as well as other health care resources. The website will connect consumers to quality rankings for local health care providers as well as preventive services.

“People need to see what choices are offered, what options cost, and how coverage works in practice,” said Karen Pollitz, Deputy Director for Consumer Support, Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. “Today HealthCare.gov takes an important first step in that direction. In the coming months and years, we will add pricing and plan performance information so that consumers can see and understand and make meaningful choices about their health coverage.”

“This website is unlike any government website you have ever seen or used before,” said HHS Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. “It was developed with significant consumer input and is remarkably easy to navigate. This is despite the sheer volume of content it offers consumers: billions of health care choices through the insurance finder and more than 500 pages of new content, all of which is designed to grow with ongoing consumer feedback and as our health care system improves.”

As the health care market transforms, so will HealthCare.gov.  In October, 2010, price estimates for health insurance plans will be available online. In the weeks and months ahead, new information on preventing disease and illness and improving the quality of health care for all Americans will also be posted.  The website also includes a series of opportunities where users can indicate whether pages were helpful to them and we will continue to seek user feedback to grow and strengthen the site.

Even though HealthCare.gov won’t issue direct subsidies, or have the power to make a recalcitrant insurer write an affordable policy for an adult with a pre-existing condition, it still represents a gigantic step forward for consumers. Until now, incredibly, there has been no single, comprehensive listing of health insurance policies available to individuals and small businesses who are not eligible for Medicare. Anywhere. Period.

“We have more than 1,000 insurance carriers offering 5,561 products open for enrollment,” said Todd Park, chief technology officer at the Department of Health and Human Services and the mastermind behind the new site. “It was developed in 90 days, which is crazy, with the benefit of a ton of consumer input—18 focus groups in five locations, and two full days of beta testing.”

You can go on this exceedingly easy-to-navigate website—brought to you courtesy of a provision of the Affordable Care Act—enter your state of residence and answer a few questions such as how old you are, whether you have a serious health condition, and whether or not you’ve had trouble affording insurance, and get back a comprehensive list of options both public and private. These include:

Private individual and small business health plans. You can see every plan sold in your state (insurance is regulated and sold on a state-by-state basis), along with:

  • A link to coverage particulars.
  • A link (if the company provided one) so you can find out if your doctor participates in the plan.
  • A link (again, if the company provided one) to the plan’s preferred drug list. -Web addresses and phone numbers to contact for more information.

If you check out the offerings in your state, you’ll see that some companies did a much better job than others of supplying the information HHS wanted. In too many cases, for instance, companies provided non-working (or no) links to doctor lists and drug formularies. Hopefully, that carriers who blew off HHS’s requests for information are pressured by the market to do better in the future. If they don’t, you might consider what that says about their commitment to customer service.

Later this year, the site will expand to show cost-sharing information for each plan (things like copays, coinsurance, and deductibles); more detail on benefits; and standard rates for customers in good health. Even farther down the road, you’ll find information on customer satisfaction and plan quality.

High-risk pools. There are links to all the new state high-risk pools for uninsured people with pre-existing conditions, and, for the 21 states that elected to let the federal government operate their pools, a link to application forms. You’ll also find links to the existing high-risk pools operating in 34 states.

Medicaid and CHIP. There are links to these programs in every state. This in itself is a huge convenience; from experience, state Medicaid and CHIP sites are not always easy to find starting cold from a search engine. But these features are just the beginning of the site’s riches.

Almost as important is the material that explains your rights and options if you find yourself in a health-insurance crisis, such as losing coverage from your job or getting to the end of your COBRA benefits. It’s right there on the home page, in the box entitled “Your Health Care, Explained.” From the common questions, it’s clear that employers and insurers too often get away with denying consumers their rights. So read up and be empowered.

There’s also excellent information about the Affordable Care Act itself, written in non-legal language and cut into digestible pieces so you can easily access the parts that apply to your situation. Twitter users can even follow news from HealthCare.gov on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/HealthCareGov.

Under Federal law, all consumers are entitled to an annual copy of their medical report files from the nationwide specialty consumer reporting agencies.

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