There's been a lot of talk in recent days about how the glitchy rollout of the federal health insurance marketplace may not mean much IF the developers of healthcare.gov are able to turn it around in the next month.
To prove the point, health policy experts point to the 2006 start of Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program for seniors and the disabled, which was also bumpy.
But in a number of ways, it appears the agency that runs the federal health insurance exchange, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, hasn't modeled that website after Part D, which it also runs.
Journalists have pointed out that one major problem with the exchanges is that, until Thursday, it did not allow consumers to "window shop," or look at details of plans, before giving their personal information and being verified as eligible for coverage. Now users can do that.
Part D's signup site is quite different. Medicare beneficiaries do not have to provide any information about themselves or verify their eligibility to get detailed cost estimates.
Below are screenshots that show how simple the user interface is for those trying to register for a Part D plan (although if you are a senior with health problems or disabled, this too may seem complicated.)
The beginning: Go to the Plan Finder page. While you have the option to enter your personal information, the first choice is to perform a general search in which you simply enter your zip code.
Step 1: The system relies on the user to indicate the type of coverage he or she wants. There's no complicated verification system at this point.
Step 2: You begin by entering the drugs you take. The website has a search tool that helps correct possible spelling errors and suggest similar drugs.
Step 3: Next you pick the pharmacies you use. Notice at the top how the page generates a drug list ID and password, which lets you come back later and make changes without having to start all over.
Step 4: You get to refine your results based on what's important to you — for example, your desire to limit your premium or limit your deductible.
Finally: The results. That was fast. Once you find a plan you like, you can go through the enrollment process.
Could the federal exchange have been modeled off the Part D plan finder? Perhaps it will be in the future.