Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Working around healthcare.gov: summary

To distill the takeaway from my last two posts (1, 2): anyone with computer access seeking to buy insurance on the ACA exchanges can easily get all the information they need to select a plan while bypassing healthcare.gov by visiting window-shopping sites ValuePenguin and HealthSherpa, as well as the individual insurers' sites once one has honed in on a single plan or a handful of top contenders.

Both sites prompt you for your location (zip code or state/county), the number and ages of people in your household, and your household income, and then give you specific quotes for all the exchange plans in your area. These quotes incorporate your subsidy if you qualify for one.  ValuePenguin provides plan details, and HealthSherpa provides contact information for each plan, including the identifying name of the plan in question. I appear to have gotten inaccurate price information in one location (Essex County, NJ) from HealthSherpa, but not from ValuePenguin, and the two provide identical price info at other locations I tested. The information on the two aggregator sites can in any case easily by checked against the insurers' own sites. The big insurers, if not all exchange participants, also offer subsidy calculators on their websites.

The catch is that as of now, the actual subsidy application has to be processed by the federal government, and the application process through the healthcare.gov website has proved broken for many if not most users (I have not been able to establish a login myself). You can, however, apply over the phone by calling the number listed at healthcare.gov and providing information orally, or you can ask the phone rep for a print application, which they'll mail. I reached a live person quickly, and he was ready to take a subsidy application from me, or so he said. Once you have an application case number, which can be sent by email if you apply over the phone, an insurer will let you apply for a specific plan, but you cannot seal the deal until the subsidy application comes through. 

The great unknown, I believe, is whether the federal government can process a phone or print application in reasonable time.  If so, the process need not be particularly onerous even if you cannot apply through the healthcare.gov site.

P.S. Healthcare.gov should be able to perform the ValuePenguin/HealthSherpa function even if you can't log in.  It does not provide age-specific price information, however -- at least, it hasn't in my three attempts. And it sends you to the Kaiser Family Foundation  for a subsidy calculator.  The Kaiser calculator is a great tool, and has been around for a while, but it doesn't provide plan-specific information.

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