Government Website Helps Compare Insurance Plans

The government has launched healthcare.gov — a new one-stop service mandated by the health care law. The idea is to help people find and compare health insurance plans.

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Happy 1st of July, day one of the tanning tax. That's the 10 percent tax on tanning services which has salon owners burning up. We'll talk about that in a moment. It's among several parts of the new health care law that go into effect today. The new website healthcare.gov is live. The website is both a service mandated by the law known as the Affordable Care Act and the first real interaction many citizens will have with the new law. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Fifteen or twenty years ago, a new health care law would have meant a fresh rack of pamphlets at the local public library.

Secretary KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Department of Health and Human Services): With a stamp on it and looking very government-like, and most people would walk right by it, thank you very much.

SEABROOK: This is Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. No pamphlet, she says. Today it's healthcare.gov, a government-created website to help people find and compare health insurance plans.

Sec. SEBELIUS: This is such a huge step forward in terms of somebody being able to sit in their living room, at their kitchen table, with a family member, get information, where nobody's trying to sell you anything.

SEABROOK: That's key, says Sebelius. There's no marketing on the site, no soft sell in the guise of information - just all the options, both public and private, arranged for each user personally.

Mr. TODD PARK (Chief Technology Officer, HHS): So let's actually let's do a couple scenarios.

SEABROOK: This is Todd Park. He's the chief technology officer of HHS and he's walking me through how Joe American would use the site.

Mr. PARK: First, I'm a 46-year-old in West Virginia who has just been laid off from the local cement plant.

SEABROOK: He chooses his state, clicks whether he's an individual, family, or business.

Mr. PARK: Click next.

SEABROOK: The site has a couple more questions like...

Mr. PARK: What best describes my situation? I'm losing the health insurance I had through my employer. How old am I? I'm between 26 and 64. Do I find it difficult to afford insurance? Yes, I just lost my job. I click submit, and boom, the portal comes up with eight options I should actually consider.

SEABROOK: Options like COBRA, the government program that helps people keep their current insurance after leaving a job. Or you could pick private insurance and see a list of every company that has a plan in your zip code. You can see if a plan already has your doctor in it and what benefits it offers.

In October it'll start showing price estimates. And it's all lined up so you can compare across companies. It's something that hasn't existed before, one place where you can find everything you're eligible for.

Now, the fight over this law was long and ugly. In fact, it's still going on, with top congressional Republicans calling for a repeal of the law. But the site itself is not meant to be political. It has a section called Understand the New Law. It shows a timeline of what health benefits will come into effect when, and it does warn you that some plans might be too expensive or might deny you, but that at least some of that will change with the new law. Park says he and the designers just weren't thinking about the politics of health care when they built the site.

Me. PARK: You know, I think everyone, I would presume, is in favor of better informed consumers. Everyone's in favor of healthy Americans, everyone's in favor of more functional marketplaces. I mean it's not a political thing, it's an American thing.

SEABROOK: Secretary Sebelius hopes the site will sell itself by being easy and useful, and that that in turn will win over Americans who are still wary of the new health care law.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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