Will You Shop Online for Health Insurance?

By Lisa Zamosky

There aren’t many things we don’t buy online these days. Yet, for most people, turning to the internet to purchase health insurance is a foreign concept. That’s about to change.

A central feature of the Affordable Care Act is to build online markets where millions of people who don’t get health benefits at work will shop for and buy a health plan, as well as learn if they qualify for federal tax subsidies to help pay for the cost of coverage. These markets, called health insurance exchanges, are slated to be up and running in every state across the country starting in October of 2013.

A survey of more than 1,800 adults conducted by Enroll America, a nonprofit created to educate the public about health reform, found that 78% of people who will be newly eligible for insurance coverage because of the law in 2014 don’t know a thing about the new health insurance exchanges.

What’s more, most people indicated they wouldn’t be comfortable going online to search for a health insurance plan – 75% said they prefer to be helped in person.

This doesn’t bode well for a law that relies on internet-based markets to get people signed onto health plans.

Exchanges and buying health insurance on the internet

But private online health insurance exchanges already exist, and in many instances have been quite successful. One of the first to go online is eHealthInsurance, a website where people have been able to shop for and purchase health plans since 1998 in much the same way the Affordable Care Act calls for.

To gain some perspective on the Enroll America survey and whether Americans are likely to warm to the idea of searching for health insurance via the internet, I talked with Brian Mast, vice president of communications with eHealth, Inc.

According to Mast, there is hope. “From our own experience, we can say that consumers are increasingly comfortable with enrolling in health insurance online.”

The key, Mast says, is to build a website that is simple and transparent. “Compared to getting health insurance through your employer, the process of buying your own health insurance can be daunting. There’s no benefits manager holding your hand,” he says.

Many state and federal officials involved in the process of building insurance exchanges across the country have said the goal is to make the experience as easy as shopping for airline tickets on sites like Expedia.com. Whether that’s possible remains to be seen.

But the health insurance exchange model does exist, and it seems that with user-friendly websites and time for consumers to get used to the idea, it’s not impossible to think that years from now we might find shopping for health insurance via the internet as natural as downloading music from iTunes.

“The vast majority of our customers go through the entire enrollment process online,” Mast says.

Getting Human Help

Even the most brilliantly designed online insurance market, however, will no doubt still leave many folks feeling that health insurance choices are too complicated to make without a more personal touch.

For that reason, the health reform law requires that consumers have access to customer support. Navigators – organizations selected to help people enroll in health plans through exchanges – will be available. In some states, though not all, you may even be able to meet in person with someone to walk through your options.

How do you feel about shopping for and buying health insurance online? Share your thoughts about online health insurance exchanges in the comments section.