If you go to washingtonhealthplanfinder.org you’ll see a “Welcome to the exchange” message inviting you to compare and sign up for health-insurance plans. You can get quotes and there’s an online chat utility you can use to ask questions.
But the site isn’t what you may think it is. It isn’t the Washington Healthplanfinder, the state online exchange set up under the Affordable Care Act to find and purchase individual insurance plans. You’ll find that at wahealthplanfinder.org.
The question of which site is which comes as the ACA, or Obamacare, approaches the Oct. 1 launch of open enrollment through the exchanges, and as federal and state authorities warn consumers to be careful about what they see and hear when it comes to insurance offers.
The washingtonhealthplanfinder.org site is run by a Seattle-based health-insurance brokerage called the Health Insurance Team, which says the site is on the up and up.
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“We’re just a couple of working families who love what we do and who are still trying to make a living at it in this industry,” said Jeff Lindstrom, a registered insurance broker and partner in the Health Insurance Team.
The team registered washingtonhealthplanfinder.org through GoDaddy.com, a domain registration company. By that time, the Washington Health Benefit Exchange had established plans for the state’s exchange, which would be called the Washington Healthplanfinder and have the Internet address of wahealthplanfinder.org.
Lindstrom said he was surprised to find the washingtonhealthplanfinder domain name available when he checked on a whim. (He also leased washingtonhealthplanfinder.com. In addition, the Health Insurance Team maintains a site at www.healthinsuranceteam.com.)
“We expected there to be some questions,” he said. “We sat down a few months ago with [staff from] the official [site], and they asked us about our website and we told them [what we were doing].”
Lindstrom said one staffer suggested that he sell the domain name to them and he said he would consider it, but the office never got back to him with an offer. “That was three months ago,” he said.
Michael Marchand, director of communications for the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, said he doesn’t know of such an offer. He said he is aware of and concerned about the potential for confusion.
“We are aware of this particular website and we have forwarded it on to the Office of the Insurance Commissioner for investigation,” says Marchand. “We are the only official Affordable Care Act-compliant health-insurance marketplace for the state, and we’re the only place where you get tax credits or subsidies.”
Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the insurance commissioner’s office, called the site “troubling.”
“We’re still investigating,” she said. “I can’t say any more than that now. It will have to be soon.”
While consumers could easily mistake Lindstrom’s site for the official state exchange, Lindstrom said his company provides a legitimate service. It offers many of the same health plans as the state exchange and more.
“We’re brokers who can advise clients about which plan will be best for them and their circumstances,” he says. “We can give information you won’t find through the state. And some people may want plans that are not on the state exchange.”
While sites like washingtonhealthplanfinder.org might lead to confusion for consumers, government officials and consumer groups are warning of greater dangers.
“The bigger danger is malicious sites that try to exploit people’s confusion by asking them to input their sensitive financial information in order to steal their identities,” said James Quiggle, director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, an advocacy organization backed by insurance companies and consumer groups.
Although he acknowledged that he has seen no known instance of this occurring yet with health-insurance exchanges, he figures it’s only a matter of time. “Crooked websites have been a problem in health care in the past,” Quiggle said.
He said consumers are very confused about what health-care reform means to their lives and how they sign up for coverage. “That confusion is a perfect breeding ground for crooks to set up fake exchange sites that ask for them to input their financial information,” Quiggle said.
Richard Kam, president of ID Experts, a consulting group, expects a barrage of dubious emails inviting consumers to visit supposed health-exchange sites. “People will click on those links and by landing on these sites will infect their PCs,” Kam said. “From there all hell breaks loose.”
If that happens, any information these consumers enter into their PCs or into the exchange can be shared with the person who put the malware on their PC, including information to get access to their financial accounts or to their health insurance.
The main weapon against such fraud and invasive activity, said Quiggle, is education. “Exchanges must do a very good, convincing job of educating consumers in their territories about what the real exchange website looks like and what functions it does,” he said.
Quiggle added that consumers need to know what information legitimate navigators — trained workers who help people enroll in exchange insurance plans — can and can’t ask for. Above all, he warned, beware of requests for processing fees.
Marchand, the benefit exchange’s communications director, said consumer education will be a significant part of the exchange’s outreach program. “If any wrongdoing comes to even one consumer,” he said, “that’s one too many.”
The Federal Trade Commission offers a Web page with additional advice on avoiding health-care scams.
“We’re asking people that if they see something that they believe is an attempt to scam them that they reported immediately to us,” Marchand said. “If you are unsure whether someone is a certified person, an assister, an application counselor or broker, you can always contact us to verify their identity and whether or not they are in the system.”
Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer in Seattle. This story was produced through a partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.