Healthcare Reform: New iPhone Calculator App Claims It's All Good, Even When It's Not

Last Updated May 13, 2010 4:25 PM EDT

A typical result from the Health Reform Calculator appThe one burning question every American has about the new and extremely dense healthcare-reform law is, "What does this all mean for me?" I'm no different, so when I got wind of the new "Health Reform Calculator" app -- now available for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad for a mere $.99--I couldn't resist. I immediately downloaded the calculator and started plugging in some coordinates.

It didn't take long for me to realize something was amiss.

I told the calculator that I'm a single person buying my own insurance coverage. The app responded by informing me I'd be able to stay with my health plan if I like it, or purchase a different plan through the new health insurance exchanges, "where individuals and small employers would come together, drawing from the benefits of buying in a large group to purchase affordable health coverage from a range of insurance options." That's a bit of a sunny outlook, considering those exchanges will vary state-by-state, and it will be several years before we can judge how good the choices they offer really are. But OK, I can live with the app's verdict for me. Plus there's a bonus: My taxes will not increase!

Then I decided to fantasize. What if instead of becoming a writer, I had started a successful business, from which I was drawing $300,000 a year -- plus a little extra income from renting out my vacation home at the shore? Again, the app says, "Your taxes will not increase."

Oops. The calculator forgot to take into account the new Medicare payroll tax -- a 3.8% tax on investment income that will hit families making $250,000 a year or more and individuals earning $200,000 a year or more. Investment income includes capital gains, dividends, royalties, rent, and anything else that's "unearned." The exclusion of this tax makes the Health Reform Calculator seem like more of a sales pitch than a non-partisan source of valuable information.

I had a bone to pick with Beaver Creek Consulting, the small D.C.-area software company that developed the app. So I called up its CEO, Marty Kube. He informed me that all the content for the app came from two federal government sites, WhiteHouse.gov and HealthReform.gov, as well as from the Center for American Progress -- a decidedly liberal think tank. "We had hopes of providing non-partisan information," Kube says. But on those three sites, he concedes, "it's a perfect plan."

That became even more clear when I clicked over to the "By State" section of the app. I surfed around from state to state, hoping to gain some insight into how the law might play out on a local level. Instead I was greeted by more evangelism: "Had we done nothing, by 2019 the number of uninsured people would have grown by more than 30% in 29 states and by at least 10% in every state," the app told me. It then laid out how many people in each state who currently don't have insurance will be able to get it under the new law.

I understand the Democrats' need to sell the virtues of this plan, but I wonder, how will my day-to-day health-related activities change when it's implemented? And how much more will it cost me than what I pay today for health care? I downloaded this app a week ago, yet I still don't know the answers. "You're seeing Version 1," Kube told me. In developing future iterations of the app, he promises to fix the tax issue, and adds that his overall goal "is to develop better content." For now, though, curious healthcare consumers might be happier spending their buck downloading the latest Lady Gaga hit.

Screenshot courtesy of Beaver Creek Consulting