Consumers Enrolling Online with Covered California Say There's Room for Improvement

Catherine Teare, Associate Director, High-Value Care

February 08, 2016
Catherine Teare
Catherine Teare

Hundreds of thousands of consumers turned to Covered California to shop for health coverage during its third annual open enrollment period. One of them was Anthony, a 29-year-old entertainment professional from Los Angeles who wanted to renew his coverage with Covered California and possibly switch health plans. He was eager to explore the plan options offered for 2016. Like many consumers, he preferred to investigate his options through the Covered California website and expected it to be a straightforward process.

It wasn't. Anthony's experience on the enrollment website was not a smooth one. He had trouble understanding the instructions for entering his income. Another screen asked him to confirm changes to his application that he didn't recall making. When he was ready to compare plans, the website's "Shop" button was broken. At the end of a 90-minute session, he had yet to review a single health plan option. The process left him frustrated and disappointed.

Anthony was a participant in a research project sponsored by the California Health Care Foundation that tested users' experiences with the Covered California website and online application. (The online application is part of the California Healthcare Eligibility, Enrollment, and Retention System [CalHEERS] and is jointly managed with the California Department of Health Care Services [DHCS].)

CHCF retained gotoresearch, a division of the San Francisco-based user experience and design agency gotomedia, to conduct this research over each of the last three open enrollment periods. The findings are based on unscripted, real-time observation of people applying for or renewing coverage online, and they capture sources of consumer satisfaction, knowledge, confusion, and frustration.

Like Anthony, most other participants in the CHCF-sponsored research were confronted with problems with the online enrollment process. Of 31 people eligible to enroll in or renew a Covered California health plan in the second (2014-15) and third (2015-16) open enrollment periods, only one was able to complete the task during the observed research session. Sessions lasted 45-90 minutes for renewals and 90-120 minutes for new enrollees.

Today, CHCF released Room for Improvement: Consumers' Experience Enrolling Online with Covered California, which describes this user testing in further detail, discusses common problems experienced by participants, and offers recommendations for improving the online enrollment process. Highlights from two testing sessions are provided in this short video:

CHCF's goal in funding this research is to better understand consumers' online experience, identify usability challenges, and offer actionable recommendations for improvements. Findings from the first open enrollment period (2013-14) showed that users had significant difficulty navigating the process online. User testing during subsequent open enrollment periods offered an opportunity to assess changes and improvements over time.

Research over three years tells us that although progress has been made, many problems from the first and second open enrollment periods persist. More should be done to make the online enrollment and renewal process work better for consumers.

The good news is that this research points to practical solutions. Room for Improvement outlines a number of steps to address frequent problems experienced by research participants. In addition, it recommends that Covered California and DHCS conduct their own user testing on a regular basis — in conjunction with regular monitoring and reporting of website analytics — to better understand and respond to the needs and challenges of online consumers.

Californians have several other channels through which they can apply for coverage: in-person (with assistance from community-based assisters, brokers, and agents, or county welfare offices), by phone, or by mail. Many people prefer these. However, providing consumers with user-friendly and efficient online experiences should also be a top priority. For millennials, one of Covered California's key target populations, it is crucial.

Consumers deserve an easy-to-navigate experience when purchasing health insurance online. As we look ahead to Covered California's fourth annual open enrollment period, CHCF is eager to work with Covered California, DHCS, and other key partners to make this a reality.