Directories not only failed tolist in-network providers, they also listed out-of-networkproviders as in-network and contained incorrect information for thein-network providers they did list. (Image: Shuttesrtock)

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If you think your health insurance plan provider directory is only a few steps up fromuseless, you could be right: a recent study has found that healthplan participants seeking out providers from directories at thosehealth plans would be better off looking for provider informationon Google.

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The study, published in the American Journal of Managed Care, looked at theaccuracy of plan provider directories over a five-county area,utilizing data from the CMS, Medicare Advantage directories,machine-readable health insurance directories, and GooglePlaces.

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Related: Out-of-network providers vex large employerplans

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The findings? Directories not only failed to list in-networkproviders, they also listed out-of-network providers as in-networkand contained incorrect information for the in-network providersthey did list.

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So all those complaints from plan members about directories havea sound basis in fact—says the study, "Without accurate providerinformation, plan members cannot navigate their plans successfully,regulators cannot ensure plans meet requirements, and researchershave no accurate source of provider information."

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In fact, although the term "reasonable access" is actuallymandated by the Affordable Care Act, plan members don't necessarilyget it, since the term is not defined by federal regulations. Andregulators measure access differently, depending on whether thedirectories being evaluated are judged by national standards in MAplans or by "individualistic network access plans in severalstates."

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CMShas reported that 52 percent of MA plan directories have at leastone error, but the numbers are more frightening than that:researchers were able to confirm 73 percent of providers' addressinformation listed on Google Places, but only 72 percent for MAdirectories; CMS' NPPES file came in at 67 percent and MR healthinsurance exchange directories at 65 percent.

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Researchers also found conflicting information in thedirectories, writing, "We found that provider directories frominsurers with MA and exchange plans did not report the same phonenumber 50 percent of the time and did not list the same address 31percent of the time."

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Marlene Satter

Marlene Y. Satter has worked in and written about the financial industry for decades.