No, Madam Secretary, Prices On Healthcare.gov Are Not A “Hypothetical Situation”

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Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, wins the award today for most creative political spin. During a congressional grilling about the failings of the federal e-commerce website, Healthcare.gov, the secretary now claims that insurance prices are merely “hypothetical situations.”

The claim was in response to recent reports that Healthcare.gov is low-balling insurance prices by 50 percent or more (or hundreds of dollars a month). The website fails to ask consumers their birthdates, only if they’re older than 49 years of age, and therefore lumps many older consumers in with some of their 20-something counterparts who are eligible for discounted rates. It’s the equivalent of Apple saying that when an iPhone is available for purchase, it’ll be half the cost of what consumers end up paying at the register.

When Representative John Shimkus asked Secretary Sebelius for an explanation for the low-ball prices, she responded, “It is clearly a hypothetical situation…”

While it’s true that the Healthcare.gov calculator does inform consumers of possible price changes upon final checkout, it really only emphasizes that prices will be lower

IMPORTANT NOTE: The prices here don’t reflect the lower costs an applicant may qualify for based on household size and income. Many people who apply will qualify for reduced costs through tax credits that are automatically applied to monthly premiums. These credits will significantly lower the prices shown for a majority of those applying. Final price quotes are available only after someone has completed a Marketplace application.”

As the secretary notes in her testimony, because many consumers cannot actually log in to the website, their true eligibility discounts (i.e. price) cannot be determined. But that’s no excuse for misleading consumers trying to financially plan for changes in their monthly expenses.

No explanation was given for why the website does not include a simple form for asking consumers for their actual birthdates. The Secretary was willing to take responsibility for Healthcare.gov’s failures today; I’m not sure why she felt the need to spin the specifics.