(Bloomberg) — Potential Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange customers can peek at 2015 prices for the program’s health plans today after the government released a “window shopping” feature overnight.
The preview feature, added to the U.S.’s revamped HealthCare.gov website, is intended to ease pressure on the system by allowing curious consumers a look at prices for health plans a week before enrollment begins. Last year, consumers who tried to use the website were met with errors and delays that prevented millions from signing up for several months.
Challenges are mounting for the second year of enrollment in PPACA, which is also known as Obamacare, as Republicans gained control of Congress last week and the Supreme Court announced it will consider whether a key feature, subsidies to reduce the cost of insurance, should be available to all Americans. The Obama administration, meanwhile, must simultaneously persuade more than 7 million existing customers to renew and sign up millions more uninsured people.
“We have been working in a number of areas to raise the bar,” Andy Slavitt, the deputy director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs HealthCare.gov, told reporters yesterday on a conference call to preview the feature. “Our principal focus is to bring people back to the website so they can update their information and shop for the best values. That’s our principal focus, is to get people to come back.”
Consumer confusion is high about this year’s enrollment period, which begins Nov. 15. About 90 percent of uninsured people surveyed in October by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they didn’t know when they could sign up for coverage. And about 51 percent of people who tried out federal and state enrollment systems last year said they wouldn’t return, according to a Nov. 3 Bankrate.com survey.
More than 13.5 million people registered to use the enrollment systems in 2014, and about 8 million finished the process and selected a health plan. Enrollment as of Aug. 15 was 7.3 million people, the government has said.
Obama administration officials are optimistic that a rebuilt federal enrollment system will hold up when it opens in a week, avoiding a repeat of last fall. The site has been much more extensively tested this year, Slavitt said.
“We’ve hit all of the critical deadlines we set over the summer for testing,” Slavitt said. A former executive at UnitedHealth Group Inc. (NYSE:UNH), he was appointed to supervise PPACA programs for the government after his company helped salvage the HealthCare.gov website last year.
The administration also hired Kevin Counihan, the former chief executive officer of Access Health CT, Connecticut’s state-based exchange, as the CEO of HealthCare.gov. Connecticut’s enrollment system was one of the best-working in the nation in 2014.
The window-shopping feature went live at about 9:30 p.m. New York time Sunday, said Lori Lodes, a CMS spokeswoman. The feature allows people to enter a small amount of information — where they live and their family size and income, if they wish – - and view premiums and benefits for health plans available in their area.
“Everything looks great,” Lodes said in an e-mail. She declined to say how many people had used the feature so far.
Most people already enrolled in PPACA plans can save money if they shop for a new plan in 2015 instead of automatically renewing this year’s coverage, Slavitt said. He and Counihan declined to be more specific about premiums for next year, saying comprehensive data would be released later in the week. Prices are about 6 percent higher nationwide on average, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis of mostly preliminary data released by 41 states.
The amount consumers will pay for insurance varies based on their age, family size, eligibility for subsidies and other factors.
“What’s most important for us, because the answer is different for every consumer, is this window-shopping tool,” Counihan said on the call. “Every individual can answer the question in the way best for them.”
In Dallas, this year a single 27-year-old nonsmoker might have paid as little as $217 a month for a “silver”-level plan, which offers the second-least generous benefits, according to the website ValuePenguin.com. Silver plans have been the most popular with consumers.
Next year, the cheapest silver plan in Dallas will cost the same person $229, a 5.5 percent increase, according to HealthCare.gov. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas sells the cheapest silver plan in Dallas this year and in 2015.
A 27-year-old living in Gainesville, Florida, paid as little as $214 for a silver plan this year, according to ValuePenguin. The cheapest silver premium will be at least $250 next year, a 17 percent increase, according to HealthCare.gov, and the person would have to change insurers to get it — from Florida Blue to UnitedHealth.
To stay with Florida Blue, the person would have to pay $261 a month, a 22 percent increase.
The new shopping features available this year will bring the experience closer to that of a commercial website such as Amazon.com. For example, consumers will be able to narrow the selection of plans by the monthly premium they want to pay, the company offering the plan, or even specific medical benefits they need, such as management of diabetesIn or heart disease.
“Window shopping is both simpler and faster, and more intuitive,” Counihan said.