WASHINGTON

We all know about the considerable problems of Healthcare.gov, the federal health insurance exchange serving the Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare. Because 36 states have refused to create their own exchanges, Healthcare.gov is the main portal for millions of uninsured (or underinsured) seeking to shop online for affordable health coverage.

After the botched rollout in October, the White House brought in scores of tech experts to make it work as intended. To a large extent, they succeeded although many users still find they must wait until the system is less inundated in order to enroll.

But no matter where or how consumers sign up, it is essential they make careful decisions as to which plans are the best for them and their families. If you’re shopping for a plan, it’s best to review the available choices according to premium prices, government subsidies, quality ratings and doctor participation.

In the past few months, a number of Web sites have been developed by those outside government that permit consumers to do side-by-side comparisons before logging on to the federal or state exchanges. The most well-known sites include Kaiser Family Foundation, Valuepenguin, and Sherpa.

Another such site has been set up by Steve Morse, a San Francisco computer professional with a doctorate in electrical engineering.


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He has lived a dual life. In his early years his claim to fame was that he was the architect of Intel’s 8086 processor which was the predecessor to the Pentium processor that is used in most PCs today. More recently he has been applying his computer skills to genealogy and developed easy-to-use interfaces to many otherwise cumbersome genealogy websites. For this he has received numerous awards, including a prestigious Lifetime Achievement award from a major genealogical society.

Morse has no interest in providing information on healthcare per se. But when he kept hearing about all the problems with viewing plans on healthcare.gov, he realized that this was no different than the genealogy websites for which he had been developing better interfaces. To make the point, he decided to spend a day to come up with a better interface for viewing the healthcare plans.

On Morse’s site, stevemorse.org/obamacare/obamacare.html, you can search for health plans offered in your state. All the sites provide information on premiums and government subsidies. And several of them present the results in table form so that consumers can compare the different plans side by side. By contrast, the federal and most state exchanges give you one plan at a time to look at.

Morse’s site does what the other non-governmental sites do and additionally gives you quality ratings from Consumer Reports and information on doctor participation. For many consumers, it is important to know which doctors participate in a plan especially if they want to keep the doctors they have been using.

So, notwithstanding the Website problems past and present, the good news for consumers is there are options that help you make informed decisions for you and your family before you ever sign on to Healthcare.gov or your state exchange.

What these sites do not do is actually enroll you in a health insurance plan. Only the Federal- or state-based sites do that. Soon the insurance companies themselves may also serve that function.

Zeke Emanuel, an architect of the Affordable Care Act and brother of Chicago mayor and former White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel, may have said it best in POLITICO: "When individuals and families can go online, browse through their coverage options and see the new benefits for which they are eligible, they will be more likely to give Obamacare a chance -- even if the back end of the website doesn’t let them enroll immediately."

Don’t let the Obamacare doomsayers out to score political points make up your mind for you. If you and your family have been without insurance or have inadequate insurance, the tools are out there to help you get an affordable plan that gives you solid coverage.

Tony Hausner retired as a Senior Analyst for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which is overseeing implementation of the Affordable Care Act.