Seniors group blasts 'misleading' Medicare website

Senior Writer
Yahoo Finance
Medicare’s Plan Finder is difficult for seniors to use, a report found. (Screenshot: Yahoo Finance)
Medicare’s Plan Finder is difficult for seniors to use, a report found. (Screenshot: Yahoo Finance)

A recent report on the state of the Medicare Plan Finder website, conducted by the National Council on Aging, painted a picture of a very broken system.

The report, conducted with healthcare transparency group Clear Choices Campaign, found that the Medicare online resource, which is designed to help people choose a plan that’s right for them, falls short in myriad ways.

“The site is overwhelming, information is poorly presented, and the user design is potentially misleading — all of which confuses beneficiaries and can contribute to many making poor plan selections,” the Council wrote.

The three-month study followed more than two dozen computer-competent seniors who used the website, and found a few worrisome takeaways.

‘20 to 30 tabs open’

Out-of-pocket costs, the information that most seniors want, are difficult to understand on the Medicare website. There are a few features to filter by health status in a general sense (“excellent,” “good,” “poor”) but not with specific conditions, location/sttate or other important factors that affect cost. The study found that prices listed for TKTK were not specific, instead displayed in in broad ranges. Costs were also not explained well, such as the difference between coinsurance and copayments.

Similarly frustrating for patients was the difficulty of seeing if their current physicians and preferred pharmacies would be included in each plan. And if the preferred pharmacy was more expensive than a cheaper alternative, that information was not communicated to website users.

By and large, users found confusion in site design, navigation, and vocabulary, which was often not specialized but explained to a satisfactory degree.

Sometimes, users could hover over a word to get a definition but most of the glossary required a click, which opened a separate tab.

“During our evaluation, it was common to have 20 to 30 tabs open just from clicking on unfamiliar terms,” the report said.

Non-existent human support, mysterious quality star ratings, and insufficient cost checking to ensure accuracy also plague the platform, as well as no option to save progress if a user doesn’t want to finish the process in one sitting.

A spokesperson for the Center of Medicaid and Medicare Services told Yahoo Finance: “CMS continues to be committed to making accurate, reliable and unbiased information available to Medicare beneficiaries to help them make informed choices about their health care. Planfinder is the most frequently used tool on Medicare.gov, with 2017 marking an all-time high for consumer enrollment through the tool. Last fall, CMS made improvements to Planfinder based on consumer testing and are continuing to make additional enhancements over the next several years.”

The problem is getting worse

The results of a bad website likely have real-world effects, and can fail to address problems of poor plan selection. A study conducted by Yale and MIT researchers found that a significant amount of seniors selected plans that weren’t right for them. According to the study, only 11% of patients chose the best plan in 2006; by 2009 that number had shrunk to 2% — despite the rise in online literacy and web resources.

In its report, the National Council on Aging pointed to a factor that makes improving the online experience even more critical: “An incredible wave of retirees will join Medicare over the next 10 years.” Not surprisingly, the expectation for this generation coming into retirement is that shopping will have a more seamless e-commerce experience.

Politically, there’s hope for an improved website. Investing in a better platform may take money, but having a confusing platform is a barrier to a competitive marketplace for plans and providers, efficiency, and ultimately, lower prices. The system does not work if the consumer is confused.

“There is clear bipartisan support for robust private plan competition in Medicare,” the report’s analysis noted. “To achieve this, comparative plan information must be readily available, accessible to Medicare beneficiaries and those assisting them, and easily understood. To this end, MPF must be improved.”

The study, while identifying problems, also strove to identify solutions. More precise costs with real-dollar amounts rather than percentages, more detailed cost estimates based on personal info, an integrated provider directory, the ability to import electronic health records, a better layout, web chat, a plan recommendation feature, and plain language. But perhaps most of all, the report exhorted that consumers be involved in testing on a regular basis.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Confidential tip line: FinanceTips[at]oath[.com].

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