Health insurance markets may not be like Travelocity

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green Brooke Foley, CEO of Chicago-based Jayne Agency, poses with photos of real people that will be used in an ad campaign to market health insurance in Chicago.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — You may have heard that shopping for health insurance under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul will be like using Travelocity or Amazon.

But many people will end up with something more mundane than online shopping, like a call to the help desk.

Struggling with a deadline crunch, some states are delaying online tools that could make it easier for consumers to find the right plan when the markets go live on Oct. 1.

Ahead of open enrollment for millions of uninsured Americans, the feds and the states are investing in massive call centers.

“The description that this was going to be like Travelocity was a very simplistic way of looking at it,” said Christine Ferguson, director of the Rhode Island Health Benefits Exchange. “I never bought into it.”

“The bottom line is that with tight timelines ... states have had to scale back their initial ambitions for Day 1,” said Paul Hencoski, leader of KPMG’s government health practice, which is advising nearly 20 states. “A lot of the more sophisticated functionalities that might have been offered through the Web are being deferred to later phases.”

When the markets first open, Hencoski said, “there will be a significant amount of manual processing of things that will later be automated.” Translation: emails, phone calls, faxes.

The Obama administration, which will be running the markets or taking the lead in 35 states, has yet to demonstrate the technology platform that will help consumers get financial help with their premiums and pick a plan.