HealthCare.gov pricing feature can be off the mark

(CBS News) CBS News has uncovered a serious pricing problem with HealthCare.gov. It stems from the Obama administration's efforts to improve its health care website. A new online feature can dramatically underestimate the cost of insurance.

The administration announced it would provide a new "shop and browse" feature Sunday, but it's not giving consumers the real picture. In some cases, people could end up paying double of what they see on the website, CBS News' Jan Crawford reported Wednesday on "CBS This Morning."

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As President Obama promises to fix HealthCare.gov, his administration is touting what it calls "improvements" in design, specifically a feature that allows you to "See Plans Now." White House press secretary Jay Carney has said, "Americans across the country can type in their zip code and shop and browse."

But CBS News has learned the new "shop and browse" feature often comes with the wrong price tags.

(Watch at left Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' recent comments on the website's problems)

Industry analysts point to how the website lumps people only into two broad categories: "49 or under" and "50 or older."

Jonathan Wu is co-founder of Valuepenguin.com, a consumer finance website focusing on the impact of health care reform. His company has built a tool that provides quotes for plans on the federal exchange. He said it's "incredibly misleading for people that are trying to get a sense of what they're paying."

Prices for everyone in the 49-or-under group are based on what a 27-year-old would pay. In the 50-or-older group, prices are based on what a 50-year-old would pay.

CBS News ran the numbers for a 48-year-old in Charlotte, N.C., ineligible for subsidies. According to HealthCare.gov, she would pay $231 a month, but the actual plan on Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina's website costs $360, more than 50 percent higher. The difference: Blue Cross and Blue Shield requests your birthday before providing more accurate estimates.

The numbers for older Americans are even more striking. A 62-year-old in Charlotte looking for the same basic plan would get a price estimate on the government website of $394. The actual price is $634.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said the government added the "shop and browse" feature to provide "estimates of premiums without tax credits."

Chini Krishnan is the chief executive officer of GetInsured.com. His company helped design California's new health-care-exchange website. It requires people to enter their birthdays to get a real price quote. Krishnan said, "It's important that the users have a proper, trustworthy, honest brand experience when they interact with HealthCare.gov, and I think providing accurate prices is an integral component of that."

Industry executives CBS News spoke with could not believe the government is providing these estimates, which they said were useless and could easily mislead consumers. They also said that the website repeatedly states the actual prices could be lower, but it makes no mention that they could be higher.

Watch Jan Crawford's full report above.

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