Study: States swing and miss on standardized plan comparison

In spite of policies aimed at helping consumers compare health plans, states still encounter practical challenges in successfully executing a website that features standardized plans, according to a new study published by the Urban Institute and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The findings, based on an assessment of the marketplace structure in four states, could inform changes to the federal exchange as it implements new comparison tools for standardized plans in 2017.

Researchers with Georgetown University reviewed state-based marketplaces in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon, and found that although state officials prioritized plan standardization that would provide consumers with “apples-to-apples” comparisons, marketplace websites fell short in implementing those policy goals.

Officials in all four states emphasized the importance of simplifying consumer choices by differentiating plan characteristics such as premiums, cost sharing and network size. However, the states' websites lacked educational information and tools that would steer consumers toward standardized plans. State officials also noted the tension between promoting standardized plans and limiting consumer choice.

None of the four states conducted observational testing to determine how to best display standardized plans on the website, and state officials reported that limited flexibility within IT platforms have prompted frustration, and forced them to focus on system improvements rather than tools that might improve the consumer experience.

Research shows that decision support tools, along with the structure of marketplace websites, are critical factors in helping consumers select the right plan. Although state and federal marketplace websites have gravitated toward decision tools, those features are still not available in all states, leading to confusion among young consumers in particular.

- here’s the Urban Institute study