MARK GUYDISHThe Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, PA
December 13, 2013
Yes, it's true; the federal healthcare.gov insurance website is full of glitches. It didn't like that my city of residence had a hyphen in it. It wouldn't take the full name of our cat - Aurora Artemis Dartmore Sillsitter - as one of the security questions, and it all but froze when I typed in a date.
But the failures were not as damning as they sound.
The site automatically gave the (incorrect) hyphen-free version of my home city. Our cat's name was fine up to 30 characters. (We overdid a run-on gag of constantly adding to our cat's name.) And the date was purely style preference: All numbers (mm-dd-yy) works; alpha-numeric (month, d, yyyy), not so much. Would have been nice if the site had prompted for the appropriate format rather than tell me, "Important: this is not a valid answer."
When you spend two months hearing everyone from Sean Hannity to Jon Stewart repeatedly riff on the website's woes, you're apt to expect a visit to feel like tooth extraction sans Novocain. This may be bad news for those in the business of bashing it, but in my case it worked fine.
And no, Mr. Limbaugh, I'm not a member of the "state-run media" trying to prop up the administration's claim the site would be fixed by the end of November. I have no dog in the Obamacare fight (unless the assignment to test the site was a hint by an editor).
This is the unvarnished experience of someone in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., typing in the URL and running through the process up to the moment the "enroll" and "cancel" buttons popped up on screen. For the record, I hit cancel. I'm still insured through work.
The day before Thanksgiving I went to healthcare.gov at 2:55 p.m. Fifty-five painless minutes later I had an insurance policy smorgasbord before me: a total of 50 plans from four insurance companies broken down into the four tiers designated by metals: bronze (8 plans), silver (16), gold (11) and platinum (5).
The cold cash basics were presented in a single chart: Costs ranged from $313.36 to $733.88 a month, though I marvel at the actuarial precision in pricing these down to the penny.
Co-pay averages went from $1 to $18, Deductibles from $150 to $5,238, and out-of-pocket maximums from $2,180 to $6,275. Click on one of the four metals and get more details about plans in that category.
At pretty much every point, the site gave the option to zip through to the meat of the matter - I'd guesstimate you could reach the enroll button in 20 minutes or less if you had to - or to loll around, passing the cursor over question marks for small pop-up windows with mini explanations or clicking to separate pages for more detailed information.
You don't have to wade to the end to get an idea of what insurance will cost. The home page has a "see plans now" button that will give basic information after answering a few questions. To get a rough idea of subsidy eligibility, you can use the "Kaiser Family Foundation Health Insurance Cost and Savings Calculator" - note they didn't acronym it to KFFHICSC, or perhaps worse yet, KFC (sometimes shorter isn't better ... imagine the chicken chain's lawsuit).
You do have to answer a lot of queries, including recurring security questions that can make you feel like you are either logging onto or feeding an NSA server. Most were the usual "favorite pet" or "important date" stuff where you pick the question and fill in the blank.
But if you fear the reach of "big data," this site will feed the phobia. At one point, to make sure I am who I claimed, I was asked questions about my mortgage bank, what credit cards I have, a city I previously lived in and prior phone number.
And these were not fill-in-the-blank, they were multiple choice. The system had apparently looked up some information and was testing me to see if I knew what it had found. That felt a little creepy, if not downright intrusive.
There are some caveats. I tested the system on a day when most people were more likely to be traveling for the holiday than shopping online for insurance. I also tested it before the administration reported it was mostly fixed, but could still be taxed in the next month as people rush to purchase policies. And I'm not a computer programmer, but I am computer literate. I work with them all day.
But in this single instance the site was as smooth, painless and informative as any insurance agent I've ever dealt with in person, while offering far more options.
That said, having talked to several people with different healthcare.gov tales, the old warning holds true here.
Your experience may vary. Mark Guydish is a reporter at The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He can be reached at email@example.com