9 ways online health insurance marketplaces can improve the plan-shopping experience

While the future of the Affordable Care Act is in flux, lessons learned from the law’s marketplaces can still inform future efforts to help consumers shop for health insurance in online settings. (Getty/Poike)

While both Healthcare.gov and state-based marketplace websites have improved the tools that allow consumers to sort through their plan choices, there is still room for improvement, according to a new report.

The report (PDF), produced by the National Partnership for Women & Families, evaluated the exchanges based on three core metrics: consumer outreach, plan display and sort and filter functions, and transparency of information.

“We did find that some marketplaces provide better experiences than others, suggesting an opportunity for administrators to learn from one another as they continue to improve tools and services,” the report says.

And while the future of the Affordable Care Act is in flux, the report notes that lessons learned from the law’s marketplaces can still inform future efforts to help consumers shop for health insurance in online settings.

RELATED: Report: When replacing ACA, keep best features of health insurance exchanges

Thus, it offers a set of recommendations aimed at further strengthening the marketplaces’ websites. They include:

  • Offer mobile apps to educate consumers, encourage enrollment and allow consumers to locate information that might require more searching on the full website, such as verification information, FAQs and definitions, and broker or other live consumer assistance resources.
  • Include more terms in site glossaries as well as in the feature that lets consumers see the definition of a term by hovering their mouse over it.
  • Incorporate a live-chat feature, which allows tech-savvy consumers to access help more quickly and frees up call centers to handle more complicated issues.
  • Help consumers easily find the best plan options by taking steps such as displaying silver plans first for individuals potentially eligible for cost-sharing reductions; providing a consumer-friendly provider and formulary search tool; and using indicators to show which providers and drugs are covered by each plan.
  • Allow consumers to sort plan options by a variety of features such as cost, quality or network breadth, and if possible, display an estimated total annual cost with personalized information for each plan.
  • Offer filtering options that allow for even more customization and personalization, such as the sliding scales used by Healthcare.gov, and make it clear that not all plans are being shown when a filter is engaged.
  • Place cost-sharing information for common services as well as premium and deductible costs on initial display pages, rather than requiring consumers to click through to details pages.
  • Ensure that two crucial documents—the summary of benefits and coverage as well as the schedule of benefits—are embedded into exchange websites for easy access.
  • Make out-of-pocket cost calculators more accurate and easy to understand by offering additional inputs and using more personalized data in the calculation.