Get county-level data to report on competition in insurance marketplace

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

downloading-and-uploading-data-iconAs large insurers, such as United Healthcare, Humana and Aetna, drop out of the Healthcare.gov marketplace, consumers are left with fewer and fewer choices, especially in certain geographic areas.

Sarah KliffSarah Frostenson and Soo Oh of Vox gathered the data to show us just how little competition there will be:

“There are currently 687 counties on the Healthcare.gov marketplace with just one insurer signed up to sell in 2017 — nearly four times the 182 counties that had one insurer this year.”

Last week Joanne Kenen offered some tips for reporting on recent departures from the marketplace. Now, with the data from Vox, which it has made available to reporters, you can localize the story by seeing how many insurers are available in each county.

I emailed Kliff about the project and she gave me some behind-the-scenes insight:

“We decided last week, after Aetna left the marketplace, that we wanted to take a comprehensive look at what competition would look like in Obamacare next year. We immediately ran into the obstacle that other journalists have found: there is no good, public data set with this information. Healthcare.gov has data through 2016 and some private companies have data for 2017, but there was no county-by-county list of which health plans were selling where. So we decided to build it!

“The project took about a week. We used Healthcare.gov data from 2016 as a baseline, and then looked at news reports about which plans had left. We also reached out to insurance plans who were leaving or entering markets to get data about what counties they would or wouldn’t sell in. One of the things that was hard about reporting this project was that when insurers enter a state they aren’t necessarily selling in every county, so we had to get that information directly from insurers — it often wasn’t included in the news articles we read.

“The result is a database of who is planning to sell in over 2,600 counties that use the Healthcare.gov database. We’ve run our own analysis on the data, and would be thrilled to have other reporters use the database as well. We think it could be an especially helpful resource for reporters at smaller papers who might not have the data resources that Vox does, who can now use our list to compare their marketplace to neighboring states — or call up insurers that are selling in some local counties but not others, and ask them why.”

Kliff reports that there were about 400 visits to the data set during its first day online.

The data set – along with information about where it came from and how to use it – is available on GitHub.

As Kenen wrote, things could change between now and when open enrollment begins – something the Obama administration made a point of noting for the Vox piece.

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