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Double whammy

Nov 21, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

At its heart, health insurance can be hard to understand, website or no website

There is more to the tortured introduction of the Affordable Care Act to the American public than simply a slow website. The entire notion of choosing the right health insurance plan would be daunting even if the website were working as slick as a whistle.

Which of us has not sat through an insurance presentation without feeling our eyes begin to glaze a bit? Haven't we all, at least from time to time, found a thick insurance policy manual to be overwhelming difficult to comprehend?

The terminology of health insurance, the differences among coverage packages, the complexities of benefits, different procedures for different providers, and the pressure to choose the correct path at the right price can combine into confusion.

It is one thing to book some plane tickets on a website without assistance because we know what our objective is. We know where we want to go and when. We know about how much we want to pay and if the price quoted is too much. Each airline follows basically the same procedures. One step follows the previous in a logical progression in this comprehensible and manageable transaction.

But deciding on a health insurance plan for oneself or one's family quickly can become something close to overwhelming for people who have never really had to think about it very much. So, when that uncertainty does arise, and when there doesn't seem to be a responsive source of information to help us answer our many questions, the psychological impact of the problem is bound to be greater.

When we don't know what do to, we might very well end up doing nothing.

All this is working up to a bigger question than how well HealthCare.gov was set up. The question is this: Was the Internet really the best way to go?

In the 1930s, Social Security was introduced. Cards were issued through the post office. Beneficiaries went to an office, filled out a form, and, if they wanted, talked to a person who took it from there.

In the 1960s, when Medicare was introduced, the situation was similar. Existing records were the basis for identifying recipients, and registration and advising functions were done in person when necessary, supplemented by printed materials. You waited in line to talk to someone who could answer questions, and the record-keeping and enrollment functions were left to the professional bureaucrats.

It is a fallacy that something is automatically better because it is on the Internet, just as it is a fallacy to presume something is inferior because it is not. One of the best things the federal government could do at this point in the health insurance snafu would be to make available a veritable army of conscientious, knowledgeable and accessible human beings to offer guidance above and beyond what would be possible even when the website begins to perform as intended.

Online or off, this thing could have been made easier by granting access in stages, depending, for example, on the first letter of your last name or your state of residence. Then everything could have been brought along gradually so that the website (or in-person staff) would not be overwhelmed as it was when almost 100 million people tried to log in virtually at the same time last month.

Few of us could claim legitimately to be experts in the complexities of modern-based health insurance. Some might feel comfortable educating themselves on the website, but it's probable that just as many would like to talk things over rather than sit wondering if the endlessly spinning beachball emblem on the computer screen means they've done something wrong.

As the sign-up process for Obamacare lurches forward, employing and emphasizing the availability of the human element in that process would go a long way toward easing everyone's mind. It would take a good website indeed to replace that element in the minds of a huge and inconsistently informed population of citizens who are being asked to tackle a subject they don't understand via a website that doesn't work.

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MAIL SUBSCRIBERS: Wednesday's edition of The Ranger was delivered to the Riverton post office by 3:30 p.m., in time to meet the postal deadline for next-day mail delivery.

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