On Wednesday morning, CBS This Morning opened its show with a claim that’s quickly gaining steam among Obamacare critics: the administration isn’t just pedaling furiously to fix the technical problems associated with HealthCare.gov, it’s also misleading people about the true cost of coverage.
The segment, from reporter Jan Crawford, claimed that “a new online feature can dramatically underestimate the cost of insurance” and that it’s “not giving consumers the real picture.” Crawford then showed screen shots of the website’s new anonymous shopping tool, which allows users to browse plan information based on geographic location and age range without asking the user to enter specific income or age data. Officials added the feature after discovering that the requirement to establish an account created a traffic bottle neck at the site’s entry point and caused massive delays and glitches.
Under the new tool, users log on to HealthCare.gov, and after being told that “this isn’t the application for Marketplace coverage,” enter the type of plan they’re interested in, select their state and county, and one of two age ranges: “49 or under” and “50 or older.”
Following several more prompts about benefits, tax credit eligibility, and the different bands of coverage, the tool throws out what it calls an “estimated monthly premium” for the available health care plans. A disclaimer reading, “IMPORTANT NOTE: The prices here don’t reflect the lower costs you may qualify for based on household size and income” is displayed on every page.
The CBS report sought to portray the tool as purposely deceitful or an effort to mislead users by displaying the lowest possible premiums:
Prices for everyone in the 49 or under group are based on what a 27-year-old would pay. In the 50 or older group, prices are based on what a 50-year-old would pay. We ran the numbers for a 48-year-old in Charlotte, North Carolina, ineligible for subsidies. According to HealthCare.gov, she would pay $230 a month but the actual plan on BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina’s website costs $360. More than a 50% increase. The difference, Blue Cross Blue Shield requests your birth date before providing more accurate estimates. The numbers for older Americans are even more striking. A 62-year-old in Charlotte looking for the same basic plan would get a price estimate on the government website of $394. The actual price is $634.
“It’s important that users have a proper, honest, trustworthy online experience when they interact with HealthCare.gov and I think providing accurate prices is an integral component of that,” Crawford quotes Chini Krishnan, whose company designed California’s state-based exchange, as saying, before adding, “industry executives we talked to literally could not believe the government is providing these estimates which they said were useless and could easily mislead consumers.” Incidentally, Crawford’s own report is misleading, showing an image of the site that reads “Your Monthly Cost,” even though the actual site says “Estimated monthly premium.”
Of course, users can obtain exact costs — and discover if they’re eligible for subsidies — if they apply online or by phone and provide their age and income level (those buttons are displayed above the anonymous browsing tool and are far more visible.) In an effort to reduce confusion, the original design of the website required users to enter personal information, though some conservatives argued that that too was a play to prevent users from discovering the unsubsidized cost of coverage.
And while one can argue that the anonymous shopping tool should provide price ranges instead of relying on cost estimates derived from the younger ends of both age brackets, it’s hard to believe that the administration would purposely mislead users about the cost of insurance by using a tool that does not take subsidies into account. Users will also discover their actual premiums once they fill out a real application, meaning that any con will be extremely short lived.
During a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Thursday, Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI, one of the firms that wrote the website, said that it could easily add a specific age field to the estimate tool.
Asked if CMS would add a specific age field to the tool, communications director Julie Bataille said, “we will continue to make changes over time that respond to consumer feedback and user demand. … committed to making additional improvements and enhancements over time.”