A New Way of Shopping for Health Insurance Gets a Trial Run

Oregon’s health insurance exchange, which gets under way in October 2013 needs to make certain consumers have easy access to information about the total cost of a health plan, the author maintains
The Lund Report

OPINION – November 8, 2012 -- Earlier this week, I took part in a trial run of the user interface system for the website of the Oregon health insurance exchange—now called Cover Oregon.

Cover Oregon is a lot of things: a new marketplace for health insurance, a means to leverage the buying power of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians to drive a hard bargain with the insurance industry, and a new way to spark competition between insurers, to the benefit of consumers. But it’s also a website, and like all big IT projects, it faces some real challenge. Especially if it’s going to be ready to go by October 1, 2013—the first day of exchange open enrollment.

How can Cover Oregon make a website that everyone can use? How can it account for the different preferences and needs of all Oregonians?

For the first time, Cover Oregon brought in consumers and outside experts to review their designs for their online marketplace. I was there, and here’s some of what I learned.

The website will give consumers new tools that should help them focus in on plans that meet their needs. By asking a few simple questions, Cover Oregon hopes to narrow down the long list of plans on the market to just a few. This should enable consumers to more easily make meaningful comparisons on cost and quality.

The website will sort plans by cost, quality and overall value. If this is done well, consumers will find it that much easier to identify the plans that give the best bang-for-your-buck.

Cover Oregon’s website holds the promise of providing an important new service for consumers, but some of the details that haven’t yet been decided will prove instrumental if Cover Oregon wishes to succeed:

  • Will consumers be able to make true apples-to-apples comparisons? Or will insurers be able to continue to use dizzying combinations of premiums, co-pays, deductibles and co-insurance to trick consumers into paying more? Cover Oregon has all the tools to make these comparisons possible, but it’s unclear how the website will enable them.

  • Will Cover Oregon’s shopping portal give consumers all the information they need, presented in a way they understand? For example, will consumers have easy access to information about the total cost of a plan—not just premiums, but out-of-pocket costs?

  • Which plans will be presented to consumers when they shop, and in what order? Will high-value plans be given preference? Or top-selling plans? Or will they be ordered randomly? This is important, because research shows that buying behavior is strongly affected by the way the options are ordered.

Cover Oregon has a golden opportunity to use its huge new marketplace to help consumers find real value, but the devil is still in the details. I’ll be sure to keep pushing them to do what’s best for consumers.

Shopping for health insurance may always be a chore, but it could be about to get a lot better, if Cover Oregon plays its cards right.

Jesse Ellis O’Brien is the healthcare advocate for OSPIRG.

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Comments

Excellent questions posed about the details of the exchange. Thank you for advocating for fairness. So much control of outcomes occurs in the IT "build" these days! It's imperative that advocates and consumers concern ourselves with these details.