Obamacare Website Upgraded to Highlight Costs as Sign-Ups Near

  • New system shows users what medical expenses likely to be
  • Administration targets 10 million covered by end of 2016

The Obama administration is working to make it easier for people to compare health plans and sign up for coverage on the U.S.-run website created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

New features on HealthCare.gov will help people to see how much insurance coverage will cost, once subsidies are included, and what their other medical-care expenses are likely to be. Enrollment for 2016 plans starts Nov. 1, and the federal website -- which is used by 38 states-- will let consumers preview plans starting on Sunday.

About 11.7 million people picked policies last year on HealthCare.gov and state-run websites. The U.S. enrollment system ran mostly smoothly in last year’s sign-up period, a big change from 2013, when the website crashed on its opening day in a major setback for the administration’s signature domestic policy achievement. Though the site has improved, critics said last year it still had too little information to help people make informed choices.

“The consumer experience this year will be easier and faster,” Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said Friday at a briefing for reporters in Washington. “Customers will have more information to select a plan that fits their needs.”

The Obama administration has set a goal of covering 10 million people by the end of next year, up less than a million from 2015’s year-end goal of 9.1 million. About 6.3 million were covered at the end of 2014. More people pick policies than end up paying premiums, and some people drop their Obamacare policies throughout the year.

Affordability Barrier

The government has said that affordability is a major barrier to getting coverage for people who remain uninsured. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell has said those who are still without coverage tend to be younger and poorer, and are often confused or unaware of subsidies.

The new website estimates what individuals’ upfront payments and out-of-pocket costs are likely to be in different plans. It asks customers to select whether their health-care use is likely to be low, medium or high, in order to display what their spending on doctor visits and drugs is likely to be. It also highlights additional subsidies that may be available to some low-income people in mid-level silver plans.

CMS is also working on tools to help individuals figure out whether health plans cover particular doctors or medicines. The system relies on data from health plans, and the agency is still working to validate all of the information. CMS plans to release those tools in a trial, or beta, form this year, once all the information is ready.

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