Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Website Shows Prices For Individual Health Coverage

Millions of consumers who shop for health insurance policies in the individual market will get a tool today that will help them compare prices and see inside information on how often insurers deny applications for coverage.

The Department of Health and Human Services is now posting pricing information for 4,400 individual and family health plans offered by more than 225 insurance carriers at
Plan information will be updated monthly, said Todd Park, HHS chief technology officer.

"The whole point is to put consumers in charge," Park said Thursday as he demonstrated the site's new pricing features to USA TODAY.

The insurance shopping tool returns personalized results of available plans based on such factors as where the individual lives, age and gender.

Among the details insurance shoppers will get on each plan:

•Monthly premium estimate.
•Maximum out-of-pocket cost.
•Major types of covered services.
•Percent of plan applications denied in the past three months.
•Percent of plan applicants charged more than the base price.

Consumers have never had access to information about how often insurers deny individual applications or add surcharges to base plan prices, said Karen Pollitz, deputy director of HHS' Office of Consumer Support. Too often, she said, they think buying insurance on their own is similar to getting it from an employer.

"This serves as an important warning to people that's not how insurance works in the individual market," she said. The data, which come from insurance companies, are required under the nation's new health law.

Some of the plans viewed during the website preview for a hypothetical woman living in Los Angeles had denied nearly 40% of their recent applications. The health law, as of last month, prohibits insurers from denying coverage to children with medical problems. But that protection isn't extended to adults until 2014. And until 2014, insurers also can use a person's health status to charge more for coverage.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, said that the industry group supports greater transparency but that insurers are concerned the application denial percentage is misleading. That number, he said, includes incomplete applications and consumers who were directed to a different policy.

Pollitz said she's comfortable that the denial percentage will be helpful to consumers.

About 16.7 million people younger than 65 have individual insurance policies, according to federal estimates.

For the data to be posted on the HHS site, a company officer must certify its accuracy, Park said. Some companies' plans are not yet included because of missing information, he said.

In addition to details about private health insurance options, the site helps consumers identify government programs they may be eligible for, such as Medicaid or new high-risk insurance pools for adults with medical problems who are unable to get insurance in the private market.  Source: USA Today

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