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Giving the health care exchanges a check-up

Affordable Care Act navigator Nini Hadwen (R) works with Marta Aguirre as she shops for health insurance during a navigation session.

Glitches, IT troubles, snafus. Whatever you want to call them, healthcare.gov is still plagued with all kinds of trouble. Federal officials aren’t saying too much about the source of the technical problems with the online insurance exchanges. But an interesting article in the Washington Post yesterday says the glitches with healthcare.gov raise bigger questions about the federal government’s IT policies.

I spoke with Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation. It’s a nonprofit that pushes for greater government transparency. Lee said there aren’t enough computer programmers on the federal payroll.

“Government has really adopted a stance where it’s completely dependent on vendor expertise to build the things it has to build,” he said. “There’s very little technical expertise at most agencies which is disappointing and leads to these kinds of disasters.”

Health officials keep reminding the public that the enrollment period is ‘a marathon, not a sprint,’ and that it lasts until the end of March. But the health policy people I’ve talked to this week say they’ve circled November 1 as the date by which healthcare.gov needs to be running smoothly.

That gives consumers six weeks to enroll in a plan and still have their coverage kick in on January 1. If the online troubles continue past the beginning of November, there’s some worry there won’t be enough time to assist everyone who wants to enroll.

These glitches also stymie all the “experts” trying to make sense of the different plans. Paula Wade an insurance-market analyst with HealthLeaders-Inter Study  flagged a page on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website that outlines premium prices around the country.

She’s starting to see a trend.

“The markets where there are several serious competitors, like California and Texas, the pricing is pretty good for consumers,” says Wade.

Wade says in the Houston area, a healthy 27-year-old could pay as little as $137 a month in premiums for a lower-tier bronze plan, and that’s before subsidies kick in. (Just remember, the monthly premium does NOT include out-of-pocket costs, or deductibles.)

But not all states are equal. Wade says in states like Alabama where there are few insurers offering plans on the exchanges, there aren’t great deals like there are in Texas, where more insurers are in the game.

If you want more details on a breakdown of the plans, check out this piece from Kaiser Health News.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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