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In 1994, Chuck Smith-Dewey founded the Health Insurance Resource Center, a site whose name reflected its singular mission: to provide resources for individuals who were having difficulty finding and affording health insurance.
For Smith-Dewey, the mission was personal. He knew well the struggles faced by his site's target audience because that audience included friends and family who had found it too expensive—or simply impossible because of pre-existing health conditions—to obtain health insurance coverage.
The problem, Smith-Dewey says, is that many of his friends, families and acquaintances were part of a huge segment of the American population that didn't have access to group coverage. They weren't part of a pool large enough to spread costs over a large group and thus lower their health coverage costs.
This segment of the population includes entrepreneurs, the laid-off or fired, those leaving the workforce but not yet eligible for Medicare, employees of companies that don't offer health benefits, and the medically uninsurable.
From the beginning, the site devoted much of its energy to informing readers about high-risk insurance pools, government programs available in many U.S. states to help those who are unable to buy insurance in the private market. Because the site offered a comprehensive, state-by-state guide to risk pools, it eventually became a risk pool resource that was cited—again and again—by major media, including The Wall Street Journal, and Money magazine.
Over the years, healthinsurance.org grew from that initial focus on risk pools, building a niche—and its reputation—with dozens of consumer-focused articles about health insurance. In addition to being a guide to risk pools in each state, the site also expanded to be a guide to broad array of health insurance resources in each state.
Each state guide is a broad directory of contacts—for the state's health insurance commissioner, risk pool, Children's Health Insurance Plan, Medicaid and Medicare offices. When the site doesn't have the answers, it points consumers to consumer advocacy groups and other resources that do.
Today, healthinsurance.org is one of the longest-running consumer health information web sites in existence and because of its trackrecord, the site is consistently near the top of search engine rankings when it comes to consumer-focused health insurance information.
"It's always been consumer, consumer, consumer, consumer," says Steve Anderson, the site's content manager.
It's still consumer-focused, but in the past few years, Anderson says "with the Affordable Care Act, it's been a lot more about how health reform is going to affect you and your family."
Smith-Dewey agrees. With passage of the health reform law, he says, the site's audience is changing and growing. More visitors to the site are people who previously chose not to buy health insurance, who could not afford health insurance, or who were considered medically uninsurable.
"Obamacare solves a lot of those problems," Smith-Dewey says. "It's not going to allow denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions, so those folks are back in the market. There are all these of people that were not insured before that will be now. There is a lot of FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt – being peddled by those with vested interests against reform. People need a referee outside of government and the health insurance industry to help inform them, and that's where we come in."
Anderson elaborates on the site's evolution. "It's all about watching the changes. There are so many questions out there about the law, and there are so many different constituencies who really are saying 'What about me? How does this specifically affect me?'"
These questions are exactly why Anderson has assembled a high-profile team of "policy wonks" to explain the coverage changes ahead under the Affordable Care Act.
The site's content contributors include financial journalist Maggie Maher, whose book Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much inspired the documentary of the same name; Harold Pollack, an expert on poverty policy and public health; and long-time health care consultant and researcher Dr. Linda Berthold, who worked on the Clinton Health Reform plan and headed the Obama Administration's 2008 health care blog team.
On the pulse
It's an impressive starting line-up for an a larger team of experienced health reporters that keeps its finger on the pulse of health care reform. The team's most visible presence is in the site's policy-focused blog. But team also tracks changes in the implementation of the law through articles about the law's provisions and through a section that monitors the progress of each state's healthinsurance exchange.
In the site's FAQ section, experts respond directly to a variety of concerns, including questions from site visitors who are struggling to obtain coverage or who are confused about the implications of the health care reform law. One of the most popular FAQ questions? "What happens if I don’t buy health insurance after 2014?”
With Mahar's help, the team also created a penalty calculator, accompanied by an article explaining penalities of not purchasing health insurance, but also explaining why it makes sense to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
"We have a really good team. The best thing about having these policy wonks is that they are so connected and they can see things coming down the pike before we see them coming toward us," Anderson says.
Smith-Dewey says it's all about immediacy. Rather than simply analyzing what happens in the news, healthinsurance.org anticipates health reform developments and "curates" that information through social media outlets as Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. To sate the information-hungry population, they recently launched an electronic newsletter.
A sister site, healthreformvotes.org, even allows people to track what their state legislators are doing with regards to health care reform, to help them make decisions politically and become moreinvolved in the process.
The Internet runs rampant with content farms disguised as health insurance web sites. Competitors pop up one day and vanish the next.Smith-Dewey and Anderson say the site has endured because of its mission.
"There really isn't anybody else like us," Smith-Dewey says. "We're unique in that we are knowledgeable about the insurance industry and yet we are not beholden to the industry. Competitors' main emphasis is on marketing insurance and while we offer our readers a mechanism for actually obtaining coverage, our emphasis is on the information that helps them make wise decisions."
Through the site’s health insurance quote form, consumers can easily and quickly compare plan benefits and plan rates in their area—most often without providing their names or contact information to marketers. While that quote mechanism ultimately provides revenue for the site by directing consumers to places to purchase insurance, Smith-Dewey says the site remains committed to one long-standing role: as consumer watchdog.
"We're definitely keep an eye on the health insurance industry for our readers who face a difficult task—not just of finding affordable coverage but making sure that the plans they buy won't have unexpected gaps that truly could lead to financial catastrophe," he says. When the industry—or any other critic of health reform—protests too loudly, healthinsurance.org typically has an expert investigating criticism to see whether the claims have any teeth.
"We feel like we are part of a community of people who are focused on expanding coverage. We really, we're true believers in expanded coverage," Anderson says. "That goal was the impetus for the site, and it continues to be the artery that drives the site. It's helping people. It's giving consumers information that they need. That's it."
Jenifer Dorsey is a freelance writer whose specialties include health and fitness, wellness, sports and recreation. She is a competitive amateur track cyclist who also enjoys mountain biking, hiking, camping and other outdoor adventure. Jenifer received a B.A. in journalism from Columbia College Chicago and is an MFA candidate at Naropa University. She lives in Colorado.