Shopping for health insurance is complicated enough, but people who rely on the Affordable Care Act marketplace, Healthcare.gov, have an extra challenge: Turn to Google to search for the website, and the first several results will be ads for private insurance websites using such words as “Obamacare,” “Healthcare Marketplace,” and even “Healthcare.gov” to get you to click.

In May, The Inquirer detailed how people shopping for the comprehensive health plans offered through the ACA marketplace are unknowingly winding up in plans with limited benefits — and big medical bills when those plans don’t pay. It all starts with deceptive online advertising that leads shoppers to think they are going to the Healthcare.gov website.

Consumers still need to be vigilant, but things may be slightly better during this year’s open enrollment season, which runs through Dec. 15.

After reading The Inquirer’s story, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) ordered his own investigation of advertising practices of websites using Healthcare.gov branding. In response, Google informed the senator’s office it would remove the worst offenders — ads that use the term “healthcare.gov” and falsely claim to be the website.

Google did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Side-by-side screenshots of a Google search for "healthcare.gov" from May 2019 (left) and November 2019 (right) show how ads have changed.
Side-by-side screenshots of a Google search for "healthcare.gov" from May 2019 (left) and November 2019 (right) show how ads have changed.

The change is small — there are still plenty of misleading ads attached to ACA marketplace search terms that could easily trip up shoppers. Ads for “Healthcare Marketplace 2020,” “Obamacare Enrollment,” and “Health Open Enrollment” may be just as confusing for people searching for the ACA marketplace.

In a recent Google search for “healthcare.gov,” the search engine presented an ad for “HealthCare.gov 2020 Plans — Plans Starting @ $9 / week.” The ad, which Casey’s report had flagged for claiming to be the federal marketplace, leads to a website called Affordable-Health-Insurance-Plans.org, a lead-generation website for independent brokers.

“While this is an important step, the fact remains that short-term, limited-duration plans are still allowed to flourish and provide individuals and families often misleading options," said Antoinette Kraus, director of Pennsylvania Health Access Network, which helps people enroll in ACA marketplace plans. “We need to do more to protect individuals from plans that leave them virtually uninsured and often with large medical bills.”

Casey said he would pressure search engines to do more to protect consumers and work to restore ACA restrictions on limited-benefit plans that Republicans and the Trump administration have rolled back.

In the meantime, lawmakers and patient advocates urge people shopping for ACA marketplace insurance to turn directly to Healthcare.gov, where you can purchase a plan online.

Ask questions about any plan before you buy it, such as whether pre-existing conditions are covered, and if there is a limit to how much the plan will pay toward care.

Need more information? Check out our tips for shopping for Healthcare.gov health plans.