By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; A13
Maybe you are a 21-year-old woman who has just graduated from college in Ohio and haven't found a job yet. Or you are a 49-year-old unemployed man with high blood pressure who lives in West Virginia. How would you know what insurance options you have under the new health-care law?
A Web site that the Obama administration unveiled Wednesday aims to give everyone the full range of public and private health insurance plans available to them based on their individual circumstances.
Users of the site -- HealthCare.gov -- will not need to divulge personal information such as their name, address or income. Instead, the site asks a series of questions including age, Zip code, job status and degree of difficulty affording health insurance, then uses a person's answers to produce a detailed list of potential coverage options from among 5,500 private plans as well as the full array of federal and state programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
The woman, for example, would be advised of six options, including a list of nearby clinics offering free or low-cost care. The man would have eight options, including a new state-based insurance program for people unable to get regular coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
The site, whose creation was mandated by the health-care overhaul law adopted in March, also allows users to see how those options will change in coming years as various provisions of the law take effect. This could make it a useful component of the White House's efforts to sell the public on the law.
However, during a preview demonstration Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the most immediate goal was to ensure that small-business owners and workers who are currently unable to get insurance through their jobs are aware of resources and new stopgap measures that can tide them over until the law's broader safety net is put in place.
"This is an incredibly impressive consumer tool," said Sebelius, adding that the site is capable of providing tailored responses to about 3 billion individual scenarios. "This information can give folks choices that they just didn't have any idea they had available to them."
Sebelius said the site may help expand coverage to the estimated 5 million children who qualify for the Children's Health Insurance Program or Medicaid but who are not being served, often because their parents are unaware of the benefit.
The site also inaugurates a substantial change in the private insurance market. Until now, consumers buying on the individual market and small-business owners shopping for group plans on behalf of their workers have largely had to do their own research or rely on brokers who work on commission and may be unwilling or unable to divulge the complete list of private plans available.
By allowing consumers to make side-by-side comparisons of all the options they potentially qualify for, the Web site could help them ensure they are getting the best possible deal, noted Sebelius.
Such evaluations will be more easily done starting in October, when the site will list prices for each plan and feature user-friendly charts comparing plans according to measures such as their deductible and co-pay levels. For now, users must click on links to the insurer to get pricing information for any given plan.