A side-by-side of a previous version of the “Apply for Health Insurance” page from November 14, 2018, and a new version of the page from November 22, 2018. Snapshots captured by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
A few weeks after the start of the Open Enrollment period to sign up for Affordable Care Act (ACA) coverage, which runs from November 1 to December 15, 2018, HealthCare.gov’s “Apply for Health Insurance” webpage was altered. Information about two ways to apply is now missing and has been replaced by a new list of application options and links, including a link for “Help On Demand,” a third-party consumer assistance referral system, operated by a for-profit software company, BigWave Systems.
In today’s new report from the Web Integrity Project, we document the overhaul of the “Apply for Health Insurance” page, the portion of the ACA enrollment website that describes different ways consumers can apply for health coverage.
Previously, the page contained a table that listed five ways to apply, with links to pages that provided more information about each option: 1) online (using HealthCare.gov), 2) by phone, 3) with in-person help (from assisters), 4) through an agent or broker, and 5) by mail. Now, the page lists only four options: 1) Find and contact an agent, broker, or assister; 2) Have an agent or broker contact you; 3) Use a certified enrollment partner’s website; and 4) Use HealthCare.gov. A CMS spokesperson, when asked for comment, noted that these changes were done as part of routine updates to HealthCare.gov.
Two of the options — to enroll by phone and by mail — have been completely removed. These removals occurred well into the Open Enrollment period, after consumers may have already visited HealthCare.gov and decided to use one of these methods. The removals may cause confusion and could impede consumers’ ability to obtain health insurance coverage.
The third option, enabling users to get “in-person help” from assisters, has been merged with the fourth option, to find an agent and broker. (Although these options were previously listed as distinct options, they both provided a link to the same page.) While the assister community is broad, and includes all individuals or organizations trained to provide free help to consumers and small businesses searching for and enrolling in health coverage, agents and brokers separately usually receive commissions from health insurance companies for each plan they sell, and are not required to aid all persons who ask for assistance.
Some of the added links associated with new options may reflect policy changes at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) — the office that manages and funds HealthCare.gov. These policy changes are aimed at making it possible for consumers to bypass HealthCare.gov to find ACA coverage. The added links preceded CMS’s release of new guidance on enhanced direct enrollment, which allows websites of approved third parties, including agents and brokers, to provide consumers with the same information and capacity to manage their coverage as is available through HealthCare.gov.
The new set of options includes third-party entities in three of the four options, listing agents and brokers twice and linking to information about using partner websites to enroll in coverage.
Specifically, a link listed as part of the new “Have an agent or broker contact you” option directs users to an “exit” webpage, warning “Once you leave HealthCare.gov, you’re subject to the privacy and security policies of the Help On Demand site, operated by BigWave Systems.” Clicking the “Go Now” button from this page directs users to the third-party website. According to CMS, the “Help on Demand” website, which is run by a for-profit, private software company, “connects consumers seeking assistance with Marketplace-registered, state-licensed agents and brokers in their area who can provide immediate assistance with Marketplace plans and enrollments.”
The page linked from the new “Use a certified enrollment partner’s website” option explains that certified partners may include online health insurance sellers, who will show you all the Marketplace coverage plans offered in your area, or insurance companies, whose websites may show you only the Marketplace plans they offer. Some certified partners let you shop for plans on their websites but require you to enroll on HealthCare.gov, and others allow you to shop, enroll, and manage your plan on their own websites, completely separate from HealthCare.gov.
Beyond including new options to use “Help On Demand” and partner websites, the order in which options appear on the page changed. The option to use HealthCare.gov — the website on which the “Apply for Health Insurance” page is hosted — is now last on the list of ways to apply. Before the change, it was listed as the first option. This change, in conjunction with options that direct consumers off of the HealthCare.gov website, demonstrates a de-emphasis by CMS of the very website it manages.
The shifts in information on the “Apply for Health Insurance” page are not a one-off. This report on the overhaul comes on the heels of WIP’s recent report, describing the removal of an assister training guide for Latino outreach. Jodi Ray, who oversees an assister effort as director of Florida Covering Kids & Families at the University of South Florida, told the Washington Post about the importance of these training materials in enabling her work. “If you pull credible resources, make it less accessible, it does make our job more difficult,” said Ray. “You have to know your community, the population, the culture of who you’re trying to reach. If we’re not providing the resources to be able to do that effectively, we’re going to lose that population that needs this more than anyone.”
Indeed, the overhaul of the “Apply for Health Insurance” page and the removal of the Latino outreach training guide come amid an array of Trump administration efforts to undermine the Open Enrollment period. These efforts include cutting the advertising and promotional budget for the ACA last year and multiple budget cuts to federally-funded assister programs.
Through a de-emphasis of HealthCare.gov, the removal of information about some of the simple methods for applying for coverage under the ACA, and the addition of options directing users to insurance sellers outside of the Marketplace, the overhaul of the “Apply for Health Insurance” page reduces access to information and options for obtaining health insurance. This ultimately amplifies the many other efforts by this administration to undermine Open Enrollment and access to health coverage broadly.
Update: As early as December 13, 2018, two days after this piece was originally published, the options “Contact the Marketplace Call Center to enroll by phone” and “Fill out and mail in a paper application” were added to the list of ways to apply for coverage on the “Apply for Health Insurance” page.