Consumers dont usually have much choice in health insurers, but one national customer-satisfaction survey says that those who do would be better off with privately held companies than publicly traded juggernauts like UnitedHealth Group, whose national presence is set to grow with its $2.6 billion bid last week to purchase Las Vegas-based Sierra Health Services.
In its first national consumer survey of big health-insurance plans, J.D. Power & Associates found that customers give notably higher grades to private, not-for-profit insurers like Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and independent Blues plans than they do investor-owned giants like UnitedHealth or Aetna, whose West Coast operations received the lowest scores of any of the 13 companies surveyed in the region.
The study, which included responses from about 10,600 customers of 49 large health plans across the nation, focused on a handful of key areas such as overall coverage and benefits, the range of choices in hospitals and doctors, and the level of communications between the insurer and its policyholders. It also included areas like the claims-approval process and customer service.
What we see (are private companies) performing better in a number of areas, said David Stefan, executive director of the healthcare practice at the Westlake Village, Calif.-based global marketing and information firm. Certainly, in the important areas, such as coverage and benefits ... these plans are engaging the consumer and getting the higher ratings.
On a 1,000-point scale, Harvard Pilgrim earned the highest overall satisfaction score of any listed insurer with 785 and was the top performer in the Northeast region. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida was No. 1 in the Southern region with a score of 779, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, topped the Midwest region at 771, and Premera Blue Cross in Seattle was the best in the West with a score of 775. All four regional leaders are not-for-profits.
With the average overall national score standing at 739, several large, publicly traded insurers fell well below that benchmark, the survey showed. Aetna scored just a 698 in the West. Consumers in the West issued a score of just 729 to UnitedHealthcare, whose parent, UnitedHealth Group, is the nations largest health insurer by volume. That was 3 points above the regions lowly average of 726, but still far short of the national average.
Sierra was not included in the J.D. Power listing because its customer base fell below the survey benchmark of 750,000 members across all commercial products, excluding Medicare and Medicaid.
Blue Cross of California, a subsidiary of WellPoint Health Networks, which is No. 2 in total revenue after UnitedHealth Group, received the second-lowest score of any insurer in the survey at 699. Stefan said the poor scores in the West might be influenced by the heavy emphasis on capitation among managed-care plans in that region.