Do you have one in black?

Insurance exchanges take a page from the used-car “superstores”

The thing I always hated about buying a car was the grueling trek from dealership to dealership to dealership, hoping to find the right make and model with the right features. Mostly, I detested the inevitable struggle to get the car salesman to reveal the real bottom-line price of the car I wanted. Yuck.

Buying health insurance on the private market has been for Americans a similarly miserable, humiliating experience. (Of course, the hunt for insurance coverage that’s not a “lemon” carries far more serious implications.)

So we smiled at an article in yesterday’s New York Times that gave us the same sense of hope we felt back when the used-car “superstores” came on the scene back in the early ’90s. The “max” car dealerships removed the agony of my car purchases by listing every feature of every vehicle in a huge network of dealerships – and topping it all off with “no-haggle” prices – in one easily searchable online directory.

Thanks to provisions of the nation’s new health care legislation, insurers will be required to operate along the same lines, starting in 2014. As the NYT’s article points out, insurers will have to provide crystal clear information about the features and costs of their policies.

“Insurers will have to offer a clearly defined package of essential health benefits comparable to the coverage ordinarily provided by employer plans, including doctor visits, hospital care, emergency services, maternity and newborn care, lab work, rehabilitative services, chronic disease management, mental health and substance abuse services, and prescription drugs – along with the full cost of preventive services.

For plans sold on the competitive insurance exchanges established by the law, companies will have to provide information in a standardized format that makes it possible to compare different plans.”

In other words, consumers will be able to put health plans side by side and compare coverage by premiums, benefits, out-of-pocket expenses, provider networks and more. They’ll be able to easily choose from color-coded levels of coverage. And they won’t lose any sleep worrying whether they’ve bought a “lemon” – coverage that will ultimately end in rescission.

Kinda makes us look forward to “kicking the tires” in 2014.

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