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HHS: New Health Plan Details Available for Small Employers

By Nellie Bristol, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

November 18, 2011 -- As part of its efforts to increase the availability of consumer information on health insurance, local plan benefits and pricing details for small businesses are now available on the Web, the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced.

Businesses can compare plan costs and other details by entering their zip code at Establishment of avenues to provide plan information and facilitate comparisons was mandated by the health overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) in an effort to encourage insurance purchases. HHS is anxious to roll out health law consumer measures to encourage public support for the embattled overhaul.

New details provided on the site by 530 insurers include:

  • out-of-pocket limits and average cost per enrollee;
  • a summary of cost and coverage with available deductibles, co-pay options and benefits; and
  • ability to filter options based on prescription drug, mental health and maternity coverage and other variables such as domestic partner provisions.

In a press release, the agency commented that the small-business market is difficult to analyze and that small employers spend 18 percent more than larger employers for the same coverage.

While the National Federation of Independent Business opposes the health care overhaul overall and is involved in the Supreme Court lawsuit against the measure, Amanda Austin, director of federal public policy for the group, endorsed provision of this type of consumer-driven information. Nonetheless, she said, in looking at the site she found that not all plans had a price per employee posted, which would be the most important detail for small businesses.

"Clearly, they need to grow more on it, but I do think ... for small businesses to be able to come in and put in a handful of information—how many employees you have, where do you live—and then to be able to compute out their private insurance options, it's helpful," Austin said. "I think those are the type of consumer-driven approaches that are going to be useful long term."

It's important for HHS to now publicize the availability of the information through a variety of channels specific to small businesses so that employers know about it. "If they don't know about it, it might as well not exist," she said. It is particularly difficult to get insurance information to small employers, she said, because half of businesses with fewer than 50 employees don't offer coverage and aren't involved in seeking information.

The overhaul provides health insurance tax credits to some small employers, who are exempt from penalties for not offering coverage. The law authorizes a state-based Small Business Health Options Program beginning in 2014 where businesses with fewer than 100 employees will be able to comparison-shop for plans.

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