New Website Seeks to Mend Insurance "Safety Net"
By Leah Thayer
A new website aims to take the frustration out of understanding, getting (and staying) covered by, minimizing the cost of and otherwise making the most of health insurance. HealthCareCoach (www.healthcarecoach.com) fills a void in the vast world of online health-related information by giving patients nationwide "a coach, an ally, who explains things so you're empowered to take control of the health insurance process," says Randy Boyle, project director for HealthCareCoach and a staff attorney with the National Health Law Program (NHeLP), the site's sponsor.
Scheduled to launch June 3, the site costs nothing to use. Free of advertising and corporate influence, HealthCareCoach dispenses unbiased, reader-friendly information about virtually every aspect of health insurance and various health issues. Its audience is people who have insurance of some kind but have experienced problems with coverage, such as having procedures denied or not being able to see a specialist. The site features many original articles that conclude with links to vetted follow-up information elsewhere on the Web. "We've found the really good, reliable information," says Boyle. "We want to keep people from having to bounce all over the Web" and/or being swayed by biased or inaccurate information.
"We want people to understand how they can manipulate the system to their advantage."
HealthCareCoach is organized into three general "channels." The first, "Your Insurance," helps users understand the different types of insurance, public and private. Topics include understanding competing plans, staying covered after losing a job, understanding COBRA and HIPAA, getting coverage for preexisting conditions, understanding copayments and deductibles, filing claims, tips on choosing a doctor or hospital, minimizing out-of-pocket expenses, and getting coverage for illnesses or injuries that occur out of state. The second channel is "Your Health." Here users learn how to select the right specialist for an illness, communicate with their doctor, and get a second opinion or overcome language or cultural barriers. The channel provides some information about specific illnesses and links to support groups, message boards and a medical encyclopedia.
Boyle emphasizes that rather than "reinventing the wheel," the Health channel guides readers to existing, high-quality sources of information on specific conditions or illnesses. HealthCareCoach's Health channel is of particular interest to women, Boyle notes. For instance, it provides tips for getting health plans to cover contraceptives or infertility treatment, for choosing hospitals that offer reproductive services—and for understanding your rights if a hospital does not. Eventually, the channel will also link to medical trials and "groups that can help if you have a child or family member with a disability." The third channel is called "Your Action Center." "We found in our research that this is not a heavily activist audience," says Boyle, "but they will take action on issues that affect themselves or their families." The channel outlines steps for writing letters to elected representatives, filing a grievance against an insurer or provider, and finding a good malpractice lawyer, among other activities. "We want people to understand how they can manipulate the [health insurance] system to their advantage."
Pulse of the People
Research into HealthCareCoach has been ongoing for about a year, says Boyle. He and his colleagues at NHeLP, a national public interest law firm that works to improve health care for underserved communities, surfed the Web for health and insurance-related information and found plenty of sites but nothing designed to "empower people to take control of the process." A Webbased survey provided a broad picture of consumers' health concerns and their likes and dislikes of other sites. This was followed by extensive in-person interviews with respondents who spent two hours apiece discussing their health concerns and actually clicking around the Internet to use various sites.
To keep the site current, Boyle says it will poll users for their views on various issues and provide results in real-time. If, for example, 50 percent of users "say they're constantly turned down for services, or 70 percent want a health care bill of rights," says Boyle, "we want to take this information and share it with policymakers." Users will also be prompted to send short statements or their concerns to policymakers. "We want to get people's voices heard." HealthCareCoach is made possible by grants from several sources, including The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Open Society Institute, The Commonwealth Fund, the Jewish Health Care Foundation and the California Healthcare Foundation.
Leah Thayer is editor of the Network News.