Comparison shop for health plans online

The Office of Personnel Management last week kicked off a plan to build an Internet-based system to help government employees nationwide choose a health plan by comparing the numerous options available to them.

As envisioned, federal employees who participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program could use the system to compare information about health programs offered in their state, including benefit features, customer satisfaction ratings and cost. Most employees today use brochures to collect this information and then do the comparisons themselves. OPM plans to make a contract award for the development of the system May 3.

"This is really a decision aid. There is a whole nationwide move to finding better ways to provide information about the quality of health care and health plans," said Ellen Tunstall, chief of insurance planning and evaluation in OPM's Office of Insurance Programs. "This is one small incremental step we're taking."

Since November 1998, OPM has been pilot testing a similar Internet tool called PlanSmartChoice, which was sponsored by OPM and the National Institutes of Health. PlanSmartChoice provides similar comparisons of health plans but on a limited basis. For example, employees can search for health maintenance organization services only in five states. OPM plans to expand that to all 50 states when the agency debuts its new system in October.

"We want to see what's in the marketplace and what we need to do to expand that application to a nationwide database," Tunstall said. The pilot site, at www.plansmartchoice.com/fehbp/getzip.html, received more than 23,000 hits during the month-long open-season period last year, she said. The open season is when government employees can switch health plans.

The task of finding a health plan can be daunting, said Jeffrey Johnston, president of Decision Innovations Inc. and of Johnston, Zabor & Associates, both of which developed PlanSmartChoice. Federal employees can choose from about 900 plans nationwide, he said.

"Our tool allows an individual to make a lot of small decisions, and the computer brings the small decisions together and [presents] the best fit," Johnston said.

For Tammy Jones, a public affairs specialist at the Federal Aviation Administration, the system would make the open season easier to deal with. "I think it would save people a lot of time and anxiety since we only have a certain amount of time—during open season—to get it done," she said. "It would help to be able go to a database and do some comparison shopping."

Frequent updates on changes made to health plans, such as a hike in premiums, would be a useful addition to the database, Jones added.

Although many employees are pleased with their current plans and have been in them for years, the system may even help "some longtimers find out there is a better plan for them," said Ron Hack, administrator of telecommunications and computer operations at the Patent and Trademark Office. "I think OPM is right-on in this instance in trying to make a tool available to employees."

Hack said the system would be more helpful if it would permit employees to compare specific features of a plan, such as dental coverage costs or coverage of mental illness treatments.

Making the system available on the Internet is a good idea because people are now accustomed to "pointing and clicking," said Ken Stepka, a procurement analyst at NASA. "Pushing information out—that's what the Web is all about."

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