In just a few weeks, millions of people will be heading to the federal site HealthCare.gov to shop for medical insurance when a new open-enrollment period begins. If some of those people wind up by mistake at HealthCare.com instead, well, Jeff Smedsrud is fine with that.
Smedsrud is chief executive of HealthCare.com, which holds a seemingly invaluable piece of Internet real estate these days. And he’s looking to make the most of it.
With enrollment in the individual health insurance market re-opening Nov. 15, Smedsrud wants people to direct their browsers to HealthCare.com, where they can shop and compare health plans. HealthCare.com--which compares itself to the travel search site Kayak--is touting a choice of 93,000 plans from about 180 insurers across the country, with the opportunity for consumers to enroll online, over the phone or with a licensed agent or broker.
If that sounds a lot like the government’s official portal for purchasing health care, that’s pretty much the idea. And it doesn’t look that different from HealthCare.gov. Stock photography of smiling people? Check. The promise to help someone find the right insurance plan for them? Yes.
But health care advocates say there is the potential for massive confusion among consumers trying to find the government’s official site. Users who wind up there by mistake could miss out on subsidies that most would receive if they were shopping on HealthCare.gov. And like HealthCare.gov last year, the HealthCare.com site has some kinks that it’s still working out, including inaccurate information.
After last year’s disastrous roll out of the HealthCare.gov site, the Obama administration is promising that this year’s enrollment process will be much smoother for consumers, although officials also caution it won’t be perfect.
There are new challenges this year: Some premiums are expected to increase or tax credits may shrink, potentially leaving current enrollees with higher monthly payments if they don’t shop around for a new plan. Only 11 percent of the uninsured even know that an open enrollment period is approaching next month, according to a recent survey.
And this coming enrollment period will be half as long as the last one but with the possibility of twice as many people trying to purchase coverage in the insurance marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act.
And then there’s HealthCare.com. Users have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the HealthCare.com homepage to find a tiny disclaimer saying it’s a private Web site that is not run by the government.
Lynn Quincy, who oversees health policy for Consumers Union, worries that shoppers on the Web site won’t realize the distinction between HealthCare.com and HealthCare.gov.
“If they mistakenly believe this is the government Web site, they may feel this is the complete list of plans available to them,” she said.
There is also no way for consumers using the site to confirm that it’s indeed showing people all their options--or even offering accurate information.
A recent search on HealthCare.com yielded a list of catastrophic insurance plans, which offer the lowest premiums but the lowest level of coverage, and showed they were eligible for subsidies. But the ACA specifically doesn’t make subsidies available for catastrophic plans.
Smedsrud said he believes some people will come to his site because they don’t want to deal with the federal Web site.
“I can’t definitively say how big this is, but we get traffic because some people don’t want to go dot gov,” he said.
Yet the user experience on HealthCare.com isn’t exactly smooth. When a shopper selects a plan on the site, the page takes the user to a third-party Web page--from an insurance broker, for instance--that then shows a selection of plans at difference prices. It’s not obvious which one matches with the original plan selected on HealthCare.com.
“We currently do not have the technology to just display the plan the person wanted,” said company spokeswoman Colleen McGuire. That won’t be available to shoppers for at least the upcoming enrollment period, she said.
The site is also currently showing 2014 health plans, but the company said it will update with 2015 health plans before the enrollment period begins.
The story of HealthCare.com goes back to 2006, when Smedsrud’s business partner purchased the domain at auction for about $2.3 million. Before this year, the site had just offered a directory of care providers that grew to 1.2 million listings. Then the company brought on Smedsrud as chief executive earlier this year to transform it into an online clearinghouse for health plans.
“It’s really a Kayak-like model,” said Smedsrud, invoking the same comparison that the Obama administration made for HealthCare.gov last year, before its failed rollout.
Smedsrud, previously the president of the American Independence Corp. insurance company, said his HealthCare.com has been averaging 1 million unique visitors each month over the past year, with traffic spiking to 1.5 million in March — the last full month of open enrollment in 2014 individual health plans. Those visitors, however, only would have seen the directory of care providers. For this coming enrollment season, starting Nov. 15, they’ll see health plans, as well.
That adds a new revenue source for HealthCare.com which already received advertising dollars for its provider directory. It will now also be paid by insurers and brokers for providing leads to potential new customers.
Smedsrud said he hasn’t heard anything from the Obama administration about his Web site. “We welcome the dialogue with them,” he said. “We’re trying to do what they want us to do, which is to help people get insurance.”
A spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency overseeing the federal enrollment Web site, did not respond to requests for comment.
The company said it will include in its offerings health plans from the state- and federal-run insurance marketplaces, or exchanges. There’s no obvious way, though, for consumers to tell which plans are offered by the public exchanges, which are the only ones that can offer financial assistance to people who meet the law’s income requirements. “We are having discussions about adding a label to determine the difference, however, in the future,” said McGuire in an email.
Almost 9 in 10 people who signed up for insurance through HealthCare.gov in the first enrollment period received a federal subsidy. Smedsrud said his company’s Web site is adjusting the language to make sure shoppers understand they must go through the government’s enrollment portal to receive financial assistance.
“It is always clear to me that you can only get a subsidy from a state or federal exchange, and I think consumers understand it, but my team is a step ahead of me in making it a bit more clear on our site,” he said.
That view may be overly optimistic, though. Just slightly more than half of the uninsured don’t even know financial assistance is available to purchase insurance, let alone where to get it, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll this week.
Smedsrud said his Web site is offering at least one service to make it more attractive to customers. It will make recommendations to customers of what type of health plan to buy, based on information like income and how much care they expect to use.
It turns out to be easy for people to get the Web site address correct for the government’s health care portal. Just ask former boy bander Lance Bass, who was asked by the White House earlier this year to spread the word about the enrollment Website. Bass, famous for being the bass singer of pop group ’N Sync, mistakenly advised hundreds of thousands of his Twitter followers to visit HealthCare.org.
Of course, Smedsrud’s company owns that domain, too.