- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Americans who flock to Obamacare 2.0 this weekend will find spruced-up websites and enhanced “window-shopping,” particularly at the federal government’s HealthCare.gov portal, giving them a chance to pick and choose from plans they’re eligible for.

Trying to erase memories of last year’s botched rollout, the Obama administration and more than a dozen states are trying to sprint off the blocks cleanly in the second enrollment, which begins Saturday and runs through Feb. 15.

All the while, HealthCare.com, a private website, is making a more aggressive push this year to try to get customers to shop for plans on its own site, arguing consumers may find a better bargain there than on the Obamacare exchange sites.

“Consumers have many options to shop for coverage, whether through HealthCare.gov, the call center, navigators, direct enrollment through an agent or web brokers. They should use the method that is most comfortable and convenient for them,” said Aaron Albright, a spokesman at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear this week unveiled a new mobile app that allows customers to search for plans on their smart phones, and to calculate how much government subsidy help they’re entitled to.

“Our exchange, kynect, is the gold standard for ease of use and convenience,” the Democratic governor said Monday. “However, we have been working since last spring to make it even better for Kentuckians during this open enrollment.”

Kentucky’s initial experience was better than most. Some states’ and the federal websites experience huge wait times, crashed or logged customers out without completing their purchases.

Many of those states that didn’t fare well the first time are busy explaining what they have fixed. In Massachusetts, exchange officials overhauled their website with technology that worked well in other states. Testing so far shows it will let people complete an application and learn if they qualify for Medicaid or a state-exchange plan before selecting coverage.

“This is a significant improvement from last year, when many residents struggled to complete an application, and we did not have program determination in place,” exchange spokesman Jason Lefferts said.

At the federal level, the Obama administration is offering a sneak peak this week at health plans offered through a “window shopping” tool on HealthCare.gov, the exchange website that serves the 37 states that do not host their own enrollment portals.

Last year, consumers had to answer nine questions before they could see plans. Now, the they just have to provide a zip code and some basic data about their age and income to see plans and get a sense of what subsidy they might receive.

The preview is designed to give consumers a head start before open enrollment begins. Experts have said the lack of window shopping contributed to HealthCare.gov’s disastrous launch last fall because it meant a rush of customers signed up to be able to look at plans, overloading the system’s front end.

Consumers will also find non-government sites that connect users with health plans or brokers.

HealthCare.com, a web domain purchased at auction for about $2 million in 2006, built up a health provider directory before expanding its services in later years to connect people with insurance agents. With Obamacare now in the mix, the company launched a beta website in September and started to add 2015 plan data to its site as it became available from the states.

The company bills itself as an “unbiased search and comparison engine for personal health insurance plans,” akin to what Kayak.com does for travel products.

HealthCare.com CEO Jeff Smedsrud said the site empowers consumers by finding the best deal for them, either on or off the Obamacare marketplace, although it includes language to let consumers know they need to go through an exchange plan to get a government subsidy.

“I have huge faith that consumers will figure out what’s best for them,” he said.

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