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Health insurance marketplaces improve consumer-friendly tools

But many still could expand decision-support offerings, Penn experts find

Though both state and federal online health insurance marketplaces have experienced their fair share of difficulties, these websites have gotten better at helping consumers choose health plans, according to experts from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

For their study, the Penn researchers compared the consumer experience on Healthcare.gov as well as 12 state-based marketplaces during the first and second open enrollment periods. They noted what consumers would see both while "window shopping" before creating an account and "real shopping" after doing so.

Overall, the websites were more likely to feature helpful decision tools for consumers in the second open enrollment period, though the researchers note that such tools are still not available on all exchanges.

"By including more of these tools in both real and 'window' shopping stages, marketplaces can help de-mystify what for many is a complex, opaque process," lead researcher Charlene A. Wong, M.D., a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, said in the announcement of the findings.

Only six sites, for example, allowed consumers to search for plans by provider network, and only nine sites provided "pop-up" definitions for common terms such as coinsurance and deductible. Many young consumers especially struggle to understand health coverage terms, FierceHealthPayer has reported.

Most sites allowed consumers to filter plans by premium and deductible amounts, though many sites' default listing of plans according to premium amount may lead consumers to focus too much on that one figure, the researchers note. Further, only three sites featured tools that allow consumers to calculate their out-of-pocket costs. California's site stood out in that it listed plans from least to most expensive based on this individual cost estimate.

Expanding the use of such tools may be particularly helpful for exchange customers who are more likely than those insured through private employers or Medicare and Medicaid to be concerned with cost and value, a recent report shows.

To learn more:
- here's the announcement of the findings

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