Welcome to the Illinois Health Matters Blog

What health reform means for the people of Illinois

A blog by IllinoisHealthMatters.org

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Why We Built HealthPlanRatings.org – and What Makes it Different

Here at Consumers' CHECKBOOK, what we’ve always focused on is helping consumers make their best choices. And we felt that right now, choosing insurance plans on the Marketplace is difficult and confusing for most consumers, and that Healthcare.gov doesn't give consumers the key information they need to choose the best plan.

So what we did was build a model for how to get consumers to their best health plan choices – and get them there quickly. We launched this Health Plan Comparison tool at www.HealthPlanRatings.org.

This tool actually compares every plan available in the Illinois Marketplace based on total estimated cost (not just premiums or deductibles), plan quality, doctor availability, and other key factors. But it's designed to take consumers with little or no knowledge of insurance through a few simple steps – which take about five minutes – to help them choose the best plan for them.

Although it is intended to be a model for the country, right now the Health Plan Comparison tool only includes plans in one state: Illinois. Our hope is that the Feds and states that are running the Marketplaces will learn from what we have done and make their Marketplaces work better for consumers for the next open enrollment period, this Fall. Meanwhile, we want to have as many Illinois consumers as possible use the tool right now.

Here are some examples of what we've done:

COST. This is the primary consideration for most consumers when purchasing health insurance. Right now, Healthcare.gov lets you compare plans, but it just gives you the premium and the amounts of deductibles, co-payments, coinsurance, etc., for various health care services and products. Since it is all but impossible to calculate the likely total cost for each plan based on this confusing mass of benefit information, consumers often choose based on premium alone, or some other unreliable shortcut. Instead, our model uses actuarial analysis of data from large health-care-usage databases to calculate an Estimated Average Total Cost (premiums plus out-of-pocket costs) for a family of the same size, ages, health statuses, and other characteristics. That gives you a single dollar amount for each plan, making it easy to compare plans.

RISK. The Marketplace gives a consumer little or no help assessing risks of having a "bad year," or what the cost of an event such as heart attack could be. We calculate the cost in bad years and the probability that a family like yours will have such a year, giving you an easy-to-understand, easy-to-compare measure of "Risk" with each plan.

DOCTORS. For many people, whether they will be able to keep their physician – or be able to have one they like – is a key consideration in choosing a plan. But it can be challenging finding out which plans have the doctors you care about available in their networks by going to each of the insurers' doctor directories one at a time. So we combined them into an "All-Plan Doctor Directory" and when you see the list of available plans, you see which of your preferred doctors are in each plan.

QUALITY. All plans are not alike in the quality of care or service their members get, and the Marketplace gives little or no information on the quality of each plan. But we actually provide quality ratings. For all the plans, we initially display a simple overall quality score, and you can personalize the score based on the aspects of plan quality that are most important to you.

We believe that the Health Plan Comparison tool will save many consumers thousands of dollars and connect them to good care and service. It was a lot of work creating this website. We launched it two weeks ago, and did a demo for about 200 Navigators at a meeting set up by Get Covered Illinois. We want to reach out and help as many consumers as possible before March 31. Please take a look at www.HealthPlanRatings.org. Here is a sample plan-comparison page:

One more thing. We have been asked why we, based in Washington, DC, chose Illinois for our model plan comparison tool. There are various reasons, including the fact that it is a large, diverse state, with major urban and rural populations; has a lot of creative, consumer-oriented leaders; and has a substantial number of plans in the Marketplace. And okay, I admit it: we have some personal connections: My mom and dad were both born and raised in Illinois (Lexington and Lincoln); I graduated from the University of Chicago Law School; the director of our health plan ratings work got a Masters in opera (very different from what he has done for many years for us) from University of Illinois and sang sometimes in Chicago before spending eight years singing opera in Europe; and we publish one of our regional versions of Consumers' CHECKBOOK magazine in Chicago, with ratings or service firms, from auto repair shops to plumbers to doctors and veterinarians, and thus have reason for frequent trips to do Chicago TV appearances talking about our findings.

We really hope that you will tell everyone who might still be looking for insurance, or helping others look for insurance, in the Illinois Marketplace about this tool. And of course, we welcome any feedback. You can email me at rkrughoff@checkbook.org

– By Robert Krughoff, President, Consumers' CHECKBOOK

Thursday, February 6, 2014

CBO on ACA: Devil is in the Details

On Tuesday, while driving between meetings, my favorite talk radio host shared shocking details from a new report – Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, is going to result in a loss of 2 million jobs in the United States over the next 10 years. Well, I thought, it's going to be a long day.

Later I learned that this reporter was sharing details from the latest Budget and Economic Outlook Report from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO is an independent agency tasked with providing fiscal analysis for Congress with the intent of informing the budget-making process. Periodically, they release these reports which provide a 10 year forecast demonstrating the economic impact of many policies. Since 2010, they have included analysis on the impact of the ACA.

Needless to say, I was anxious to dig into this nearly 200 page behemoth and figure out what was going on. What I read in this report turned out to be great news. The report does not say that the economy will lose 2 million jobs. It says that, by making it easier to access affordable, high quality health insurance, more than 2 million people can make the choice to leave their job and pursue their passions, spend time with their families, start businesses, or find better jobs.

For those of us that have been following and championing the ACA, this isn't actually new information. Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a report, entitled The Affordable Care Act: Improving Incentives for Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment, which estimated that we could see as many as 1.5 million entrepreneurial spirits leave their jobs to become their own boss in 2014 alone!

Both reports highlight the same important fact: Because of the promise made by the ACA, that we can all access good health care, people will have the freedom to do what they want without fear of medical emergency and financial ruin.

My father, sister, and brother-in-law are all self-employed. Even my grandmother owned a small craft shop for the better part of my 26 years. While they were all brave (and maybe a little stubborn) enough to pursue these passions before the ACA, it has not been without sacrifice. After my self-employed and uninsured father had emergency eye surgery in 1992, my family filed bankruptcy as a result of unpaid medical bills. If the ACA had been around then, things would have been much easier for us and my dad certainly would have avoided a lot of sleepless nights worrying about keeping his business or providing for my sister and I.

I was shocked when I heard that radio report, but – as always – the devil was in the details. Except the devil isn't really a devil at all. The bottom line is that the ACA presents a new opportunity: an opportunity for people like my dad, to become their own boss; for someone who has put in their years and saved their pennies to retire early; or for a new parent to work part time so they can spend more time watching their child learn and grow. The CBO report means that what happened in my family, and millions like us, doesn't have to happen anymore – and that is why I will continue to be a proud champion of the ACA.

– By Kathy Waligora

Kathy Waligora is the Manager of Health Reform Initiatives at EverThrive Illinois (formerly the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition).

See the 2013 ACA Self-Employment Infographic in PDF.