Dennis McGuire

OPINION

Early lessons from HealthCare.gov

The rollout of HealthCare.gov has dominated the discussion of the Affordable Care Act, and with good reason. The website will serve as the health insurance exchange for the 36 states that chose not to set up their own exchanges, so its stability will affect millions.

However, all of the chatter about the site’s malfunctions has overshadowed a more important aspect of the law: It will turn millions of Americans into direct insurance buyers for the first time. Those people will need to compare plans available through an exchange – whether federal or their states -- and choose one to purchase.

Most of those buyers will need a lot of help as they navigate the exchanges, whether the federal site or one of the individual state’s efforts. Health insurance is complex and can be challenging even for professionals to evaluate, let alone first-time buyers.

From the HealthCare.gov experience, we can glean lessons that could help federal and state government contractors provide better services for their customers. A few of them:

Focus on the front end

Most of the attention so far has emphasized the back end functions, such as communications between the exchange and insurance companies or the ability of buyers to register properly. While these are certainly important concerns, the government would be well served by a focus on the user experience on the front end. That’s where curious information seekers can be persuaded to become customers – or give up in frustration.

Consider new and better education and guidance tools

No matter how well-written they are, blocks of text describing the benefits, limitations and costs of complex insurance plans can be overwhelming. Health insurance is a “considered purchase,” meaning it is complex and consumers need a great deal of education in order to make a good decision.

Consider other options to help users find their way around the site and understand the information.

Consumers want self-service

While they will call a helpline if they have to, many or most shoppers on the insurance exchanges would prefer to learn what they need to know on their own. We don’t like to show our ignorance to other humans when we first engage with a brand.

An intelligent virtual assistant (IVA), on the other hand, provides an experience very similar to help from a call center, but with no actual human interaction required. An IVA may be offered as an animated character, or a voice- or text-only guide.

Understand behaviors to improve the buying experience

The exchanges should track where consumers go when they visit the sites, and provide a way to build on that data so that each subsequent visit is more productive for the user. With an IVA guide, the user can find the needed information in fewer visits, leading to both greater customer satisfaction and reduced strain on the exchange.

Give consumers communication options

The more ways there are for users to find information, the more likely they are to get what they need and make a buying decision.

The HealthCare.gov experience has revealed a huge pent-up demand for the insurance exchange approach, especially among young adults buying policies for the first time, and among seniors who want to shop for better policies or combine new options with Medicare. They need help to navigate.

Call centers, in-person help, video tutorials and an array of other approaches provide options for consumers. However, intelligent virtual assistants can guide users in real time, while they are actually online and are looking at their healthcare options.

About the Author

Dennis McGuire is CEO of CodeBaby, which develops virtual assistant technologies.

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