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The Obamacare Maze, Now Online


HealthCare.gov tries to make 907 pages of legislation user-friendly

Health-care reform may have been signed into law four months ago, but in this day and age you don't really exist until you've got your own website.

Obamacare now has a digital home in HealthCare.gov, an Internet destination designed by the U.S. Health & Human Services Dept. to help consumers navigate the health overhaul signed into law by President Barack Obama in March. In book form, the legislation fills up a hefty 907 pages.

The site, launched on July 1, offers a detailed breakdown of the law, as might be expected. It also has an insurance plan finder, a Twitter feed to distribute information on policy changes, and videos of senior citizens, pregnant women, and others explain- ing the law's benefits, at least from the Obama Administration's point of view.

In the past, Republicans in Congress have criticized the Administration for using official government channels to promote what they see as propaganda. Michigan Representative Dave Camp, the House Ways & Means Committee's top Republican, in May called an Administration mailing on Medicare changes "blatantly political." So far, though, the new website has gotten a pass. Todd Park, chief technology officer at HHS, says the site's only purpose is "to help consumers take health care into their own hands." It's the first resource, he says, that brings together insurance options for individuals and small businesses and integrates public and private programs.

The site aims not just to blast information at users but to help them make sense of a topic that only seems to grow more complicated. "I think this is going to be an extraordinarily helpful tool," says Ron Pollack, executive director of Washington-based consumer group Families USA, which supported passage of the health overhaul. In the "What's Changing—and When" section, users can click through a timeline to find out when different pieces of the legislation take effect. A section on "Strengthening Medicare" explains changes to that program, such as a $350 million antifraud effort, in a simple-to-understand manner. And, says Pollack, "it'll be the first time in any single place you can find all of the different kinds of insurance coverage that are available to you."

At least that's the aim; some parts still aren't complete. The function to help people find insurance coverage, for instance, lists the companies that have policies to offer but says prices won't be available until Oct. 1. "We started building the site 90 days ago," Park says, calling the current version "just the beginning."

The new website could be a dry run for 2014, when the government will begin supporting insurance "exchanges" that actually sell health coverage, suggests Alec Vachon, a Washington-based health-care consultant and a former Republican Senate aide. "This is health exchange zero-point-five."

The bottom line: The new HealthCare.gov site aims to help citizens navigate health-care reform, but it's still missing some key information.

Drew Armstrong is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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