New Opens Early to Allow for Review of Plans

The Obama administration said Sunday that consumers could shop for health insurance and compare their options on starting Monday, even before the open enrollment period formally begins five days later.

Andrew M. Slavitt, the No. 2 official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the new website would have more information and would be easier to use than the one that frustrated millions of consumers last fall.

Consumers would be able to sort plans not only by the amount of the premium, but also by the size of the deductible, Mr. Slavitt said. In addition, he said, consumers would be able to see all health plans that have special programs to manage certain conditions like asthma, heart disease, depression, diabetes, lower back pain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The announcement came as the Obama administration ramped up preparations for the second open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act. People would be able to see prices and other the details of health plans on Monday, but would not be able to buy insurance until the open enrollment period starts on Saturday. To see plans Monday after the new feature is live:

By contrast, consumers last year could not see details of the available health plans until the first open enrollment period began on Oct. 1. Even then, consumers could not engage in anonymous “window shopping.” They had to create accounts, providing personal information in response to numerous questions, a restriction lifted by early December.

About 7.3 million people have insurance coverage purchased through the federal and state insurance exchanges, or marketplaces. If people did nothing, they would, in most cases, be automatically re-enrolled in the same or similar health plans.

However, Kevin J. Counihan, the chief executive of the federal marketplace, said Sunday: “We are strongly encouraging our customers to return to, update their income and eligibility information, shop and compare and see if there are better values out there for them. A majority of our customers will be able to save money by shopping and comparing.”

In June, the Obama administration emphasized the benefits of passive re-enrollment. “At least 95 percent of consumers in the marketplace will not have to do anything to renew plans and their financial assistance,” the administration had said.

Mr. Counihan predicted on Sunday that 15 percent to 25 percent of applications for insurance would be submitted by people using smartphones or tablet computers, and the website was able to handle such applications, he said.

In addition, the government said it had 14,000 customer service representatives, an increase of 1,000, to answer questions and help people who call the health insurance marketplace for assistance, at 1-800-318-2596.

Administration officials and insurance counselors said the second open enrollment period could be more difficult than the first for several reasons. It will, for example, be only half as long: three months, rather than six.

Officials said they believed that people who remained uninsured would be more difficult to reach, since they passed up an opportunity to buy insurance in the first enrollment period.

The most common reason people gave for not signing up was that they thought they could not afford health insurance. Low- and moderate-income people can often get federal subsidies to help defray the cost, but officials said they could not guarantee that the money would be available if the Supreme Court blocked payment of subsidies.

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear a new challenge to the Affordable Care Act that questions the government’s authority to pay subsidies in three dozen states that use the federal exchange. If the plaintiffs are right, people in those states could become ineligible for assistance, destabilizing and perhaps dooming the law.

For now, at least, “nothing has changed,” Josh Earnest, President Obama’s press secretary, said on Friday. “Tax credits and affordable coverage remain available.”

Asked Sunday if the lawsuit might have a negative effect on public willingness to sign up, Mr. Slavitt said, “We believe consumers should be very confident in the subsidies being offered.”

Democrats said it was troubling that the court would even consider the legal question. They said Congress intended for the subsidies to be available in every state, regardless of whether its exchange was established by the federal government or by the state itself.

More than four million people have been receiving the subsidies. For people who obtained insurance through the exchanges this year, subsidies reduced the average premium by more than 75 percent – to $82 a month, from $346.

By entering information about their income and family size at, consumers can get an estimate of how much financial assistance they would receive for a particular health plan. In addition, smokers can see the amount of any surcharge imposed for tobacco use.

The administration has tried to lower expectations for the second sign-up period, refusing to set a numerical goal for enrollment and acknowledging, as Mr. Slavitt said, that “things will not be perfect.”

Consumers have frequently complained that had inaccurate information about doctors in the networks of their health insurance plans.

Mr. Counihan said the federal website included links to “provider directories” on insurance company websites. But he said, “These directories are almost out of date as soon as they are printed,” so consumers should call doctors’ offices to see if they are taking new patients from a particular health plan.

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