Obama Admin Launches HealthCare.gov ‘Window-Shopping’ Feature

November 11, 2014 in News

On Sunday, the Obama administration launched an updated “window-shopping” feature on HealthCare.gov that allows consumers in the 36 states using federal insurance exchange to compare health plans prior to the start of the open enrollment period, the Washington Post reports (Goldstein [1], Washington Post, 11/9).


Last year, HealthCare.gov experienced severe technical glitches during the exchange’s initial open enrollment period. Consumers and insurers reported application delays and data errors that extended beyond the high visitor traffic and software issues that HHS initially cited (iHealthBeat, 8/12).

Consumers also were not able to compare health plans prior to the Oct. 1, 2013, start of the initial open enrollment period and had to create accounts to compare plans until an anonymous window shopping tool was unveiled in early December (Pear, New York Times, 11/9).

The second round of open enrollment will begin Nov. 15 and will run for three months (Goldstein [1], Washington Post, 11/9).

Window Shopping Tool Compares Premium, Subsidies Information

Consumers who window shop on HealthCare.gov can now receive premium and subsidy estimates for various plan options, as well as potential tobacco use surcharge information (New York Times, 11/9). To use the tool, consumers must provide their:

  • Income;
  • Number of family members who would be enrolled in a health plan; and
  • Zip code (Goldstein [1], Washington Post, 11/9).

Consumers also are able to sort the plans by the premium amount and deductible size. Further, consumers can find health plans with specialized programs to manage particular conditions, such as:

  • Asthma;
  • Heart disease;
  • Depression;
  • Diabetes;
  • Lower back pain;
  • High blood pressure; and
  • High cholesterol.

The site also offers links to provider directories available on insurers’ websites. However, HealthCare.gov CEO Kevin Counihan cautioned, “These directories are almost out of date as soon as they are printed.” He said consumers should call physician offices to ask if they will be accepting new patients for particular plans (New York Times, 11/9).

The new shopping tool also was optimized for use on smartphones and tablets (Pai, MobiHealthNews, 11/10).

CMS Deputy Administrator Andy Slavitt said that federal officials believe the window shopping tool could potentially reduce the load put on HealthCare.gov’s computer system by allowing consumers to decide on their plan before enrolling (Schneider, Reuters, 11/9).

Officials Preparing HealthCare.gov Contingency Plans

In related news, federal officials have been preparing contingency plans in case the exchanges experience technical issues and have been “scrambling” to meet some deadlines in advance of the upcoming open enrollment period, the Washington Post reports.

According to the Post, officials in a late October document detailed a “throttling” system that would be used if HealthCare.gov traffic exceeds its capacity, which would send individuals into “waiting rooms” before they would be able to complete their applications. The document said the new system would more efficiently detect issues with the site’s capacity than the system that officials employed during the initial open enrollment period.

In addition, a separate document detailed how officials missed an internal Nov. 1 deadline to notify previously enrolled individuals about several pieces of important information, including whether they might be eligible for subsidies for 2015 plans. According to the document, fewer than one million of the 7.6 million notices were ready to be sent by the third week in October. Officials later fixed a computer glitch to allow the notices to arrive in batches by the start of open enrollment, but consumer advocates have said individuals likely would have been better off receiving the information sooner.

Further, another document detailed that the Affordable Care Act’s Small Business Health Options Program will continue to be tested for approximately one month after the start of open enrollment. According to Slavitt, the parts of SHOP that need to be ready for the beginning of open enrollment will have been sufficiently tested by Nov. 15, while other aspects of the small business exchange will continue to be tested, including the ability to provide certain premium data to employers (Goldstein [2], Washington Post, 11/9).

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