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Even with Obamacare, shopping for health insurance isn’t as easy as buying a plane ticket

In-person enrollment help played a huge role in Obamacare’s first year. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

I've written recently about the importance of in-person assistance during the first year of Obamacare's coverage expansion. And new Kaiser Family Foundation polling of these assistance programs today shows just how much help people need with purchasing health insurance.

The big headline from this morning's poll was about how many people actually received some kind of personal assistance during the Affordable Care Act's first enrollment period — KFF estimates that at 10.6 million people. But I wanted to pull out some of the poll findings illustrating just how hard it is for people to choose a plan on their own.

Just 13 percent of assistance programs said they spent, on average, less than an hour with each person they helped. Most spent between 1-2 hours, but some averaged much higher.


What kind of help were people looking for? The top three reasons given all involved the mechanics of health insurance — 87 percent cited a limited understanding of the ACA, 83 percent said difficulty understanding plan choices and 80 percent said they weren't confident enough to pick something on their own.

Further, almost 90 percent of assistance programs said they heard from people they helped after enrollment. The reasons varied, but there was confusion about plan choices and payment issues.


That suggests that people who needed help in the program's first year could likely need it again in the second. The administration tried to make it easier on those enrollees by allowing automatic renewal, but it also looks like people will need to shop around if they want to get a good deal and stay enrolled.

Just before's awful launch in the fall, President Obama said Americans would be able to go online to shop for health insurance the "same way you'd shop for a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon." That, of course, was a sales pitch to get people to look at the enrollment Web site (before we knew how bad it'd be at the start). But today's polling data and similar polls in recent months show that just isn't the case — and the law's implementers need to plan appropriately for that.

Jason Millman covers all things health policy, with a focus on Obamacare implementation. He previously covered health policy for Politico.



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