On Nov. 10 I spotlighted two public service websites, ValuePenguin and HealthSherpa, that appear to offer workarounds to the dysfunctional healthcare.gov for people hoping to buy health insurance on the ACA exchanges.
Both sites take your location (zip code or state/county), the number and ages of people in your household, and household income, and give you specific quotes for all the exchange plans in your area. ValuePenguin links to plan details, and HealthSherpa provides contact information.
To what extent do these tools provide a workaround the broken Healthcare.gov website? They provide all the information needed to make an informed choice, at least when checked against the insurers' sites. One still has to go through the federal government to apply for a subsidy, but that can be done by phone or snail mail. The main question, for those eligible for subsidies, is how long the subsidy determination will take.
A shopper who is not eligible for subsidies can buy a plan directly from the insurer of her choice, with all the information that should have been available on healthcare.gov easily obtained elsewhere. Below the jump, my experience initiating the shopping process. I presented myself on the phone as someone planning to apply for a subsidy.
ValuePenguin and HealthSherpa steered me to three insurers offering plans on the exchange in New Jersey: Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield, HealthRepublic, a co-op, and AmeriHealth. A person at Horizon BCBS told me on 11/11 that I can fill out an application online, and they will email a subsidy application to be sent to the federal government by snail mail. Today I was told that that was erroneous: if I want to apply for a subsidy, I have to do it through Healthcare.gov -- and that the process is likelier to work if I apply by phone.
HealthRepublic promised me a call-back from an agent; I have not yet received one.
At AmeriHealth, an ACA specialist advised that I call healthcare.gov, start a subsidy application over the phone, get a confirmation number, and then come back to AmeriHealth, which would start an application contingent on my getting a subsidy determination. They could/would not first process an insurance application and then retroactively apply the subsidy if/when it came through. I believe that is the case with all insurers.
I called Healthcare.gov and got a live person quickly. He told me that I could apply for a subsidy by phone or via a paper application, and I could receive status updates via email as well as snail mail. Once my subsidy was determined, I could apply for insurance either through the exchange or directly through the insurer of my choice.
To sum up: once you have applied for a subsidy determination with healthcare.gov and have a case number (or whatever they call it), some insurers at least will initiate an insurance application, though they will not complete it until the subsidy determination comes through. As of now, they cannot initiate the subsidy process or steer you through it. I gather that that may change.
The shopping and enrollment process done without the help of the healthcare.gov site need not be onerous -- if the subsidy determination can be executed in reasonable time. That's a big if.
One further note: HealthSherpa's price quotes in New Jersey were $200-300/month lower than ValuePenguin's. ValuePenguin's were either exactly on target or within a few dollars of the quote on the carriers' websites. I compared HealthSherpa and ValuePenguin prices for two other locations, Brevard County Florida and Allen County, Kansas, and quotes were identical.
Note: This post has been substantially rewritten, as I was given some erroneous information yesterday (specifically, that at least one insurer would process an application without a subsidy determination, and apply the subsidy retroactively once it came through -- and that the same insurer would email the subsidy application to be snail-mailed to a federal government address).