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New online health insurance finder for small businesses draws mediocre reviews

Employee benefit consultants who have reviewed a new online health insurance finder for small-business owners say it leaves much to be desired.

"I think it creates more questions than answers," says Pete Villemain, president of Employee Benefit Services Inc. in San Antonio. "If there is any value, it's minimal."

Designed to help small businesses obtain affordable health insurance, the comparison tool is located on the HealthCare.gov website, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created under requirements in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed by Congress in 2010.

health insurance finder toolThe site is the first to gather in one place information about and links to health insurance plans for individual consumers and small businesses. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services worked to define and collect benefits and premium rating information from insurance companies nationwide.

The tool provides a list of health insurance plans available in your area, which you can sort by out-of-pocket limits, average cost per enrollee or other factors. It gives a summary of coverage details, such as:

  • The range of deductibles and co-payment options.
  • Included and excluded benefits.
  • Benefits available for purchase at additional cost.

You can also filter selection of plans based on whether they are eligible for health savings accounts; have prescription drug, mental health or maternity coverage; or allow domestic-partner or same-sex coverage.

Experts doubt tool's usefulness

That sounds like a lot of information, but Villemain says much of it isn't helpful.

"It deals strictly in generalities. It's giving numbers that are meaningless," he says. "I often get asked, 'What can I expect to spend on health insurance?' But without looking at the demographics and without knowing conditions in your group, you cannot make a prediction."

Benefits consultant Michael Goodheim of Farsighted Strategies in Seattle gives a similar review. For example, he points out that health insurance quotes for businesses vary based on factors such as deductibles and copayments.

Some health plans may have 10 different deductible choices, ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, and 10 different co-payment options. The tool produces a single cost average for all those options, and warns that actual costs may be much higher or lower depending on your final picks.

Goodheim says he found the averages "frighteningly high" and worries the site might scare business owners away from offering health insurance coverage.

"The website acts like you're shopping in a supermarket and picking something off the shelf. But health insurance is a complicated product. . . . That's why we have insurance brokers," says Goodheim, who helps businesses develop benefits strategies, but is not a broker.

Jan Sherman, a health insurance broker in the Detroit area, says it's impossible to tell what the cost averages are based on.

"Even when you click on it, it doesn't tell you the assumptions" behind the price, he says.

Valuable details that business owners should know before choosing a plan are missing, he adds, such as whether a plan screens group members for health conditions and tobacco use.

"I wish I could be more positive," he says. "To me, it looks like a start. . . . What might be helpful for businesses is to get an idea of companies that are out there."

However, when he reviewed the tool, it didn't list a prominent plan in his area, but did include a large insurer that is only a minor player in Michigan.

Goodheim says to compare health plans, small-business owners and managers need to drill down into the details, such as access to care. However, those aren't available on the site.

"A lot of the differences are under the hood," he observes.

Good intentions

Goodheim calls the effort well-intentioned and acknowledges that creating a nationwide database of health insurance plans is a massive undertaking.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services could not be reached for comment. In a press release, the department says the new tool "brings transparency to the marketplace, which will help ensure insurance companies will compete for business on the basis of price and quality."

"The new, unprecedented ability to search at this level of detail will bring the marketplace into better balance by giving insurance purchasers the power of information," Steve Larsen, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, says in a press statement.

Before shopping for insurance, businesses need to decide why they're offering benefits and how those benefits can help them achieve their overall goals, Goodheim says. Then they need to decide how much they can spend on benefits and find out what type of health insurance plans are available at that price.

For business owners, "my advice, as it would have been before this site was developed, is talk to an insurance agent you feel comfortable with and trust," Villemain says.

More from Barbara Marquand here

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