Another government website is shortchanging consumers with inaccurate information, enrollment details presented in confusing Washington-speak, the unavailability of human support, and no easy way to search for doctors covered under your plan.
No, I’m not talking about HealthCare.gov—though its shortcomings are well-documented—but rather, its older, clumsier twin, the Medicare Plan Finder.
We all remember the disastrous 2013 launch of Obamacare’s online portal, in which a grand total of six people enrolled in coverage on the first day, because the web tool was associated with a highly polarizing law that had been enacted three years earlier.
Yet, when the Medicare Plan Finder—the federal government’s online tool to help Medicare beneficiaries and others obtain information about, and make decisions on, coverage options in fee-for-service and Medicare Parts C and D—launched at the height of the dot-com age, no one blinked.
The dirty little secret is that the Medicare Plan Finder deserves the same stringent oversight HealthCare.gov received and more, because its shortcomings are even more far-reaching.
For all the media hype and congressional handwringing, most Americans still bypass HealthCare.gov and state exchanges altogether through enrollment in an employer-sponsored health plan.
Medicare beneficiaries, on the other hand, are reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 per day, and they might need a little help choosing the plan that best suits their needs.
That’s why, with the help of our friends at the National Council on Aging, we at the Clear Choices Campaign undertook the first-ever independent assessment of Medicare’s online shopping tool.
The results, published in April in a comprehensive report and discussed in early May at a congressional hearing, were jarring.
Based on more than two dozen interviews with Medicare beneficiaries, surveys of Medicare State Health Insurance Assistance Program directors, and our own review of the site’s functions, we assigned letter grades to the Medicare Plan Finder in 12 subject areas.
In our review, the site earned “A” grades only for the ability to browse anonymously (without entering personal information) and for its translation services for those who don’t speak English. The web tool earned “D” or “F” grades on seven other metrics.
As it turns out, Uncle Sam makes for a poor web broker and, as with HealthCare.gov, consumers are paying the price, literally.
The Clear Choices Campaign, of which I am executive director, exists because we know that health care transparency is the key to unlocking greater competition and ultimately driving down health care costs.
When consumers are empowered with tools to make informed decisions and compare their options, markets respond.
Regrettably, the Medicare Plan Finder tool fails to deliver on that goal, only adding to the confusion and opaqueness that typifies too many Americans’ health care experience. It’s another link in a broken system, where consumers know less about their health insurance plan than about their high-def TV.
In recent weeks, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it would implement “several consumer-friendly improvements” for the Medicare Plan Finder as a direct result of our findings.
That’s good news for beneficiaries, but it will take more than a few piecemeal tweaks to make the tool properly serve those it is intended to help.
Ultimately, this raises a question of whether—in an age of ample health care e-commerce tools, such as eHealth.com, HealthCare.com, and HealthSherpa.com, among others—the federal government has any business entering into direct competition with these private-sector alternatives.
Our report on the Medicare Plan Finder offered 11 key recommendations for improving the tool, but we know those improvements would come at a cost to taxpayers, who are already wary of being used once more to prop up another faulty government website.
To that end, we’ve also posited that, faced with limited budgets, and considering the vast experience and expertise in the private sector, the Medicare Plan Finder could be partially or fully privatized.
Given the billions of dollars wasted on the HealthCare.gov boondoggle, it’s an idea that deserves lawmakers’ attention—and one that President Donald Trump could be receptive to, considering his administration’s plan to “wind down” support for HealthCare.gov.
As Medicare’s Oct. 15 open enrollment start date approaches, seniors are counting on Washington to ensure this is the last enrollment season where they are relegated to a failed website for help.
Congress and the administration could make that a reality by handing over the keys to the Medicare Plan Finder so that bureaucrats spend a little less time building websites and a little more time working to improve care and spur better health outcomes for Medicare’s 59 million beneficiaries.