A highly-touted doctor search tool on the Covered California health insurance website has so far proven to be nothing but headaches for consumers and for officials of the state run insurance marketplace, who have taken the feature offline for repairs.
During the first week of enrollment that started Oct. 1, the doctor search didn’t work at all. Top officials touted it on opening day as an important tool for consumers who want to confirm that their doctor is included in any new health plan they may buy.
Early last week, Covered California officials announced the search tool was up and running. But, within hours, those using it found a slew of problems.
"I had an ophthamologist friend listed as speaking Farsi, Russian and Spanish, and he doesn’t speak any of those languages," says Dr. Richard Thorp, president of the California Medical Assn. The group represents about 37,000 doctors statewide.
Perhaps even more awkward, data loaded into the site contained errors that linked doctors to the wrong specialty. For instance, Thorp says, a gynecologist friend of his was listed as an ophthalmologist.
"You can understand that that’s a very different kind of encounter: thinking you're signing up for an ophthalmologist," he says, "and finding out the doctor you signed up for is an OB/GYN doctor or, visa versa, for that matter.”
Covered California spokeswoman Anne Gonzales says the agency took the doctor search tool offline last Tuesday to fix improperly loaded data. The agency is also trying to make the slow-working search run faster and to make the function easier for consumers to find and to use.
"It’ll have better page loading speed. We’re going to reconfigure some of the navigation paths so it’s not so confusing, and we’ll have some expanded search functions," Gonzales says. Officials hope the search tool will be running by sometime next week.
In the meantime, some are advising consumers shopping for insurance on the website to hold off on enrolling in a plan until the doctor search is working.
"That’s important information for people to make informed choices, and the sooner that’s available to everybody, I think the better," says Jerry Kominski, director of UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research.
Kominski says the doctor search tool is especially important to Covered California consumers. Some of the insurance companies now selling health policies through online marketplace are shrinking their provider networks to include only those doctors and hospitals who agree to reduced fees.
"You don’t necessarily know if all the hospitals in your area are going to be part of their network," Kominski says, "Or maybe, more importantly to people is whether or not your current doctor or clinic is going to be part of the network."