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Web Site Launched to Help Consumers Find Plans—But May Quickly Become Focal Point of New Law

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

July 1, 2010 -- The federal government went live Thursday morning with a much ballyhooed Web site that helps consumers find health insurance options and explains benefits under the new health care overhaul law. Critics may see it as a propaganda tool and a symbol of federal encroachment, while supporters will see it as a way people can learn about and take advantage of available benefits under the law.

Either way, the site is likely to receive heavy use and quickly become a focal point for changing information about the law. It's name——will probably stick in the craw of those who are uneasy about a higher government profile in health care.

The descriptor accompanying the name of the site—"taking health care into your own hands"—won't appease those who see Uncle Sam turning into Doctor Sam. A section on "strengthening Medicare" will anger those who say half a trillion dollars in cuts over 10 years doesn't exactly strengthen the program.

And there are reminders on the site that it is run by the federal government.

On the other hand, the site does offer a fast way to learn about coverage options. "People need to see what choices are offered, what options cost, and how coverage works in practice," said Karen Pollitz, Deputy Director for Consumer Support at the HHS Office of Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight. The site offers some price information but more data will come this fall to compare prices and quality of plans.

Say, for example, you are a young Maryland resident about to turn 25 and your parents' federal coverage is no longer available to you. By typing in your ZIP code in Montgomery County, you learn that 11 plans are available to you in the individual market.

If you click on one—say "Kaiser Foundation Health Plan"—you learn there are 13 different Kaiser plan options with premiums ranging from $60 to $222 per month. Phone numbers are listed for those who want to get more information, or one can apply online.

The site also has easy-to-use features offering details about the new law, including a summary of its provisions. A four-minute video tour explains what the site offers and how to use it. Among the features for understanding the law is an interactive timeline with brief summaries of provisions as one moves through the implementation calendar.

Wonky Washington types can also use the single searchable tab that offers actual text of both public laws that make up the overhaul legislation.

One of the first uses of the site will be to learn about the new state-based programs for people who have been unable to get private coverage for six months or more because of pre-existing medical conditions. In the case of Maryland, for example, one learns that premiums cost from $141 to $328 per month with a plan deductible of $1,500. The site gives an e-mail address to request an application.

HHS has wasted no time lining up favorable reviews. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, said in a statement that "for the first time, no matter where you live, you can go to one place and compare health plans available in your area. The site is nicely designed. It's easy to find information. It tries to avoid the complicated language that you usually get when you're shopping for a health plan."

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