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HHS Will Seek to Publish Data on Health Plan Enrollment

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

November 12, 2010 — The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is working on regulations that would allow it to publish additional in-depth health insurance data, including the number of people enrolled in each insurance plan, an agency official told reporters on Friday.

Karen Pollitz, director of the Office of Consumer Support at HHS, said the "secret sauce" of transparency is what's needed to best help consumers understand their choices among insurance plans as the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) is implemented.

So, she said, HHS will seek to make public the detailed data from insurance companies that has been provided to the government for, a new Web portal authorized by the health care law that allows consumers to compare plan premiums, benefits and more. On Monday the number of plans on the site will double to about 8,000, she said.

Consumers now may compare plans by ZIP code on the Web site, which will continue to grow as more information is added. "There's a lot of interest in the data that underlie what's on," Pollitz said at a Washington briefing sponsored by Health Affairs magazine.

"A lot of what we know now about the insurance market you can see, but some of it you can't see exactly," she said. "You can rank plans, for example, by enrollment, the most to the least popular plan in a ZIP code. But you can't actually see the enrollment numbers.

"Some folks are interested to see that. A lot of folks are interested to see that. You should be interested to see that. I can see it. It's really interesting."

Pollitz said the still-secret enrollment numbers show how dominant some insurance companies are in certain markets. "Our data show that markets are highly concentrated," she said. "We kind of knew that before. Now we can see just how concentrated they are."

The government is working on a regulation to create public use files for the data, she said. The rulemaking process will require an analysis of data that can be released, but Pollitz said the desire is to get the regulations finished soon so consumers will have access to the information.

"Transparency is all about transparency and everybody should be able to look and apply their own smarts to sort of figuring out what it is we have and understanding how the market works," said Pollitz.

"It's a priority and I really want that out there as quickly as we can," she added.

Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, said it's not yet clear to the industry how the information will be presented. It will be important that any publicly distributed health insurance data is accurate, up to date and useful for consumers, he said.

Robert Laszewski, a longtime health insurance analyst and president of the firm Health Policy and Strategy Associates, said plan enrollment numbers might be compiled by state insurance regulators or from government filings for publicly traded companies, but are not now in one central location available for public view.

"For all practical purposes that information does not exist anywhere," he said. "Karen's got it because she requested it of them. My educated guess is she's the only person on earth who's got it."

Laszewski questioned how useful enrollment numbers will be to consumers. It may be important to know that 500,0000 people have bought a certain policy, but the point is whether the product is suitable for the individual enrollee, he said. Consumers also know already which are the biggest insurance companies in their community, he said.

"You can jam in so much information here you actually make it more difficult for the man on the street to find value," he said.

But Pollitz said more information is on the way and it will assist consumers who until now have had to try to wade through confusing policy jargon. HHS, for example, is also authorized under the law to gather data from insurers on items such as how often claims are denied or paid and the reasons why.

"We'll use that to certainly inform oversight but also develop other kinds of measures of plan performance for consumers," she said. "You see two products and one's a whole lot cheaper, but wow, that one denies your claims a whole lot more often."

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