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updated 7/1/2010 11:50:25 AM ET 2010-07-01T15:50:25

Consumers shopping for health insurance get a boost today with the launch of a new federal website, www.healthcare.gov.

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The health law that Congress passed in March called for the creation of the site, which advocates say will make it easier to shop for a plan. Consumers will be able to see all options available where they live, compare costs and determine if they qualify for a government program.

Federal health officials say the website will work as a bridge to help consumers until 2014 when much of the new law takes effect, including provisions that bar insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and establishing new health insurance exchanges, the marketplaces that make it easier for consumers and small business to buy insurance.

Here's a short Q and A on the new website:

What's on the site?
Currently, the site provides a basic list of all private health plans that are accepting new customers, by state and ZIP code. It includes information on government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare and high risk pools that provide coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

It also includes coverage options for small businesses, such as tax credit programs contained in the health law.

You can compare quality of care at hospitals, learn about the health overhaul law and get health prevention tips.

In October, a more comprehensive version of the website will be launched that will have extensive benefit and pricing data, including premiums, deductibles and coverage limitations.

Eventually, the site will also include performance data on the plans, such as what percentage of claims the plans reject, how much the plans' premium revenue is spent on health care and the number of times patients appeal coverage decisions.

How is this federal site different than existing online insurance brokers, such as eHealthInsurance?
The federal website lists all available private health plans and government health insurance programs. EHealthInsurance lists only selected plans and does not list government plans.

Can I sign up for a plan directly from the federal website?
No, there is no enrollment feature on the site. Rather, the site provides the health plans' web links and phone numbers so that consumers can contact a plan directly to apply.

So how does the website work?
The site takes you through a checklist: state, age range, whether you are disabled, healthy or have a medical condition. The website asks if you are losing coverage from work or if you have any coverage. It does not ask for personal identifying information such as your name or income. Then, you're given the choice to learn more about private health plans, along with other options such as Medicare, Medicaid, COBRA coverage and the high-risk insurance pools being set up by states and the federal government this month for people who have not been able to get insurance because of pre-existing medical conditions. You enter your ZIP code to get a list of plans in your area.  

What does the site tell me about the private health plans?
It has plans' contact information, including website links and customer service telephone contacts. In addition, the website links to a summary of the plan's benefits and to the provider network so you can check to see if your doctors are there. You can also find out about the drug coverage offered by the plans.

What changes in 2014, when more of the health law kicks in?
Most of the functions of the new federal website will be taken over by state-based insurance exchanges, which will have their own websites to help consumers shop for coverage.

© 2012 This information was reprinted with permission from KHN. Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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