If you’re buying health insurance on your own this year, the marketplace is more complicated – and dangerous – than ever. Dangerous? How can that be? This is health insurance we’re talking about, not some sketchy Internet site.
But the reality is that the scam artists are out in full force, and anyone buying a policy by shopping online had better watch out. There’s a high likelihood you could buy something that won’t provide much coverage but will shortchange you mightily when you get sick.
Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat, who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, has just released a report that should be required reading before anyone buys health insurance this fall. The report’s title, “Health Care Sabotage Online: A Warning to Consumers,” couldn’t be clearer.
It reveals that individuals are bombarded by paid advertisements for health insurance meant to mislead and confuse unsuspecting shoppers. Those ads, the report points out, more often than not lead to what’s called “junk” insurance.
What exactly is junk insurance?
Those are plans that can exclude coverage for preexisting conditions, meaning that only people with perfect or near-perfect health can buy such a policy. If they can, premiums are likely to be cheap, much cheaper than a policy that meets the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.
But they do not provide comprehensive coverage.
Because junk insurance has the potential for wiping out a family’s finances, federal regulators issued rules in 2016 that said people could buy them only for three months. The policies were originally intended just to help people moving between jobs that offer employee insurance.
Obamacare policies eliminated restrictions on preexisting conditions, meaning even those with very debilitating illnesses could now get insurance. That was a huge step forward in the evolution of U.S. health insurance.
But last year the Trump administration allowed people to buy junk insurance offering one-year coverage and the option of renewing for up to three years and excluding coverage for preexisting conditions. That move effectively exposes buyers to more risk.
A premium that may be several hundred dollars a month cheaper and better fits the family budget is enticing. But if you get sick, there’s not much coverage, and you or family member may be responsible for thousands of dollars of medical bills you thought were covered.
Here’s where more trouble comes in. Senate researchers found that when someone searches online for health insurance, it’s hard to tell the difference between legitimate search results and paid advertising pushing junk insurance.
People searching for “health insurance” may stumble onto commercial sites instead of the actual government marketplace site. You might find a site that bills itself as HealthCare.org, a very similar address to HealthCare.gov, the official site for ACA policies.
For example, last summer one site billed itself as “HealthCare.org-Official Site| Health Insurance Marketplace” and presented 10 lines of advertising copy that listed brands such as Aetna, Cigna, and Kaiser and touted its “mobile friendly process.”
Only at the very bottom of the site did a shopper get the real government website, HealthCare.gov, and notes that it is the official site of the Affordable Care Act. This is an important distinction to keep in mind.
Casey’s report also found that many paid advertisements use language meant “to mislead individuals into thinking they are HealthCare.gov.” Several ads have descriptions using words like “Official Site,” “Open Enrollment,” and “Health Insurance Marketplace” that make people think they are at the actual government site, but in reality they are not. Sometimes researchers found ads using the term “HealthCare.Gov in the website title and descriptions even though the website has nothing to do with the government’s official site.
Furthermore, Casey’s researchers found some advertisers played on political persuasions to attract customers. They associated their products with Donald Trump, presumably hoping the name would help sell something the president promised would be a “better” alternative.
Researchers found that sellers used terms liked “TrumpCare,” the “HealthCare.gov Alternative,” “2019 TrumpCare Health Plans,” and “The Non-Government Way to Get Best Health Insurance for the Lowest Cost!”
In the old days state consumer and insurance regulators would try to prevent these kinds of ads. That’s not done much these days. So once again it’s “Buyer Beware, and consumers are on their own when it comes to policing this new insurance marketplace.”
What have been your experiences with such insurance? Write to Trudy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Trudy Liebermana, who is with Community Health News Service, is a veteran journalist specializing in insurance, health care and health care financing.