Echoes of Disastrous Obamacare Launch: Report Rips Medicare Shopping Tool

Authors recommend private sector fix to address deficiencies in Plan Finder for seniors and health care providers

Inaccurate information. Confusing terminology. Poor web design. An inability for users to get help from actual humans.

Those are among the red flags raised in a scathing analysis released this week faulting the federal government’s online tool designed to help Medicare recipients purchase add-on services. The report, prepared by the Council on Aging and Clear Choices — a group devoted to improving health care transparency — conjures images of the disastrous rollout of the federal health care exchange created under Obamacare.

The report awards Medicare Plan Finder (MPF) 12 letter grades, based on different aspects of the tool. Those grades include only two As, with seven categories earning a D or an F.

“It utilizes some functions that facilitate consumer evaluation of key health plan details, but overall the website is full of hard-to-understand jargon and information that is displayed poorly and is confusing for consumers,” the report states. “The presentation of cost information provides little help in understanding a beneficiary’s complete financial exposure under different coverage options.”

The deficiencies are important, the report argues, because 10,000 baby boomers join Medicare every day. Beyond the basic health care program, seniors have the option of purchasing additional coverage through the program, but the report cites previous studies indicating that many seniors do not choose the best plans for their circumstances.

The authors blame that, in part, on the Medicare Plan Finder (MPF).

“The fact that Medicare beneficiaries are not benefiting from these tools is likely a function of both a lack of resources and intermediation between those overseeing MPF and its consumers,” the report states.

Michael Johns, a health care executive from New Jersey and a national Tea Party leader, said the Medicare program generally works well in the United States. But he agreed with the report’s conclusions that the MPF could be improved.

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“Whenever you attempt to reform any health care program, it’s always best to roll it out in experimental test format,” he said. “That’s an opportunity to weed out potential glitches and errors in the system.”

He said that should be one of the key lessons of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act website debacle, when millions of users crashed the system and could not complete purchases. It took months to work out the bugs.

“They never really tested it — never put it into a test system,” he said.

The report gives A grades for only two categories: the ability of users to browse products anonymously without creating an account, and for translations into non-English languages.

But the authors find the system severely lacking when it comes to highlighting supplemental benefits; showing customers whether various plans cover their preferred pharmacies and allowing customers to search whether plans cover prescribed medicines.

“We want to design a Medicare program that is effective and easy to navigate for seniors who have paid into this system all of their lives.”

The report also contends the MPF does not make it easy to get help from human support staff. In addition, the layout of the MPF website lacks an “intuitive design” and does not provide “easy explanations of terms for consumers.”

The report lays out a number of detailed recommendations, including a comprehensive redesign that would make it simple for consumers to shop and compare various Medicare plans.

“Ideally, when consumers utilize the website, they can connect to a positive shopping experience that allows them to enter their preferences and certain health information to curate coverage options when shopping for a plan,” the report states.

The study’s authors call on Congress to direct the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to upgrade the MPF and boost funding to achieve the goal.

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“If markets are to work better than government, then Congress ought to fund the information tools that make markets function optimally,” the report states. “At the same time, faced with limited budgets and considering the vast experience and expertise in the private sector, MPF could be partially or fully privatized.”

Johns, the health care executive, said turning to the private sector “makes complete sense.”

A former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, Johns said the government owes it to senior citizens to make sure Medicare works well.

“We want to design a Medicare program that is effective and easy to navigate for seniors who have paid into this system all of their lives,” he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected].