Beginning on October 1st, US health insurance plans will be facing a big enrollment event when millions of Americans will be required to purchase health insurance. Where will many go to do research and shop? Health plan websites.

Forrester Research recently conducted an online wellness check  to see just how prepared plan websites are to meet the crush of insurance plan shoppers. Through the second quarter of 2013, Forrester assessed the sales and service prowess reflected the public websites of seven US health plans. What did we learn?

  • Research help is hard to find or missing entirely. Product information, research help, and site search are weaknesses that needed to be addressed by all the plans we evaluated. What did we have in mind? Content that answered questions about plan features, plan comparison tools, and especially guided plan advisors. Two that caught our attention were David, Aetna’s Virtual Benefit Advisor and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois’s plan helper. But while these were incredibly valuable aids, even these two stand-outs were hard to find on the websites.
  • Application processes are long and cumbersome. We found that it can take as long as 60 minutes to fill out an application online for a family of four and applicants need to provide all kinds of sensitive information. Just how sensitive are we talking about? Like social security numbers, the date of their last visit to a provider, the nature of that visit, and all medications taken — just to get a quote. Even worse, one plan would not let us submit our application for quote without including the telephone numbers of family physicians.
  • Helpful customer service previews are absent. Health plan shoppers also want to know how easy it will be to set up recurring and even one-time bill pay, make policy changes, find (and even compare) healthcare providers, and keep track of deductibles. Only Humana let shoppers take a gander at service functionality, offering nearly 20 different interactive demos. 

Health plans have to fix low-cost problems first.

With the clock continuing to count down, digital teams at private health plans need to prioritize and focus on fixing the simple website problems that are easy to fix, and then move on to more costly changes later. Just how basic were these problems? How about something as fundamental as telling shoppers why they should become customers. So what will shoppers do if they can’t get tasks done online? They’re going to pick up the phone and inundate plan call centers.

For more information on our methodology or insight into how the ranked firms scored, download the full report here. Questions or comments? Feel free to ask them here or directly via email.