In the darkest days of HealthCare.gov's dysfunction, I was preoccupied for a time by the partial workarounds enabled by third-party informational sites like ValuePenguin and HealthSherpa. ValuePenguin in particular offered (and still offers) a near-complete and accurate substitute for the informational functions of HealthCare.gov: it will calculate your subsidy and show you all available plans, accurately priced, with plan summaries.
HealthCare.gov at first, famously, had no pre sign-in informational feature allowing users to scope out options if they could not register, as most couldn't. When that feature was hurriedly added, it at first referred people to the Kaiser subsidy calculator, rather than incorporating its own subsidy calculation. It also gave out misinformation, at least for me in New Jersey: failing to query about age, the site quoted prices at a middle-range age without disclosing that it was doing so. In my case, the quoted prices were half to two-thirds of the actual prices, which I found on ValuePenguin and confirmed with the insurers.
Now, I'm happy to report, HealthCare.gov's shoparound feature (accessed on the home page via a large "see plans before I apply" button) works beautifully. First, the long screens of general information that Ezra Klein once bitched about are no longer there -- at least not once you click the "see plans" button. You zip through 7 or 8 questions about location, household size, age, income, and employer insurance access and you're in -- viewing subsidy-specific pricing information on all available plans, with plan summaries and search functions to for covered doctors and hospitals and drugs on tap.
Better yet, if you want to explore the income break points, e.g., for help with deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, once you've punched in all the information and pulled up the options, you can hit a "change" button and change the income (or any other variable, e.g., the number of people on the plan). You can therefore assess the value of adding more to your retirement account and so reducing your income -- or, if you're self-employed, buying a computer and so reducing your "profit from business." You can view how much you stand to lose if you cross the line into subsidy ineligibility (little if you're young and single; huge if you're fiftysomething with dependents) and plan or adjust accordingly.
In other words, leaving aside the smoothness of the application process or lack hereof, HealthCare.gov is now a complete planning tool Well done, someone.
Update: I thought I'd add one nitpick that didn't quite make it into consciousness yesterday: when posting search results/available health plans, HealthCare.gov should not lead with the bronze plans, i.e., present results in ascending order of premium price. Better, like ValuePenguin, to default to silver plan display. HealthCare.gov does provide a menu for viewing bronze, silver, gold, platinum only, but leads with all results.buttons for all plans. Silver is a logical default choice, since the subsidies are keyed to the second-cheapest silver plan in any market, and deductible/out-of-pocket subsidies are not available for bronze plans. And deductibles in bronze are troubling.
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