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The Buffalo Niagara region's three HMOs beat or came close to meeting state and national standards for quality, but all three saw their grade drop from the prior year, according to a new report card.

The biggest decline was at Community Blue, which saw the percentage of customers who are well satisfied drop to 58 percent, from 67 percent a year earlier. Community Blue executives responded to the data by releasing new figures that show its customer satisfaction is now up to 68 percent.

Univera Healthcare scored 63 percent, down from 69 percent a year earlier, and Independent Health saw its grade drop to 70 percent from 71.

The scores are based on the percentage of customers who gave the health maintenance organizations a score of 8, 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.

The local HMO scores compare with a state average of 60 percent and a national average of 57 percent.

Compiled by the New York State Health Accountability Foundation, the report card is based on 1999 data and attempts to offer a guide to consumers on HMO quality of care and access to treatment.

The report card evaluates the HMOs in 17 different areas, from the quality of their primary care providers to how they handle specific problems such as depression or asthma.

One area in which all three local HMOs fell short of the state average was the percentage of board-certified physicians they utilize.

Among the region's big three, the percentage of board-certified physicians ranges from a low of 74 percent to a high of 77 percent. The statewide average is 82 percent.

The region's below-average scores on that particular measure reflect what many health care professionals have suggested for some time -- that the Buffalo Niagara region has trouble attracting as many quality physicians as needed.

"I think it's a general indication of the local economy," said Dr. Brad Truax, senior associate medical director at Independent Health. "The young and the brightest are not staying here."

Overall, the local HMO scores varied depending on the category surveyed by the foundation.

Community Blue, for example, scored above the state average on consumers' ability to get services quickly, but slightly below the state average on its overall rating and the quality of its primary care providers.

The company said new figures for 2000 indicate customer satisfaction is higher than it was in 1998.

"We haven't been able to pinpoint why our numbers were lower (in 1999), but we're glad to see those numbers went back up," said Connie Otteni, vice president at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Western New York.

Independent Health also fared well on customer service but dropped below the state average on the percentage of primary care physicians who stay with the same HMO. The organization attributed the decline to physicians who left the HMO but have now returned.

Unlike its two competitors, Univera scored above the state average on the quality of its primary care physicians but did poorer on customer service, with a score equal to the state average and slightly below the national average.

Univera executives attributed the customer service score to several recent changes in its benefits, including a new three-tiered prescription drug plan.

"We're never pleased when we're down from where we were," said Susan Emhof, vice president for member advocacy, "but we're making a lot of changes that may have led to those lower scores."

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