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Independent Health is high in member satisfaction; Ranks first in region and places second in nation in J.D. Power annual survey

For the second straight year, Independent Health Association has been ranked by J.D. Power and Associates as No. 2 in the country and No. 1 in the New York and New Jersey region for member satisfaction.

Williamsville-based Independent Health easily beat out all of its rivals in the two states, besting No. 2 Excellus BlueCross BlueShield of Rochester -- parent of Univera Healthcare -- by 50 points.

The gap between it and HealthNow New York's BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York was 70 points. HealthNow came in fifth in the region, out of 13 carriers.

Independent Health was the only one of the 13 insurers in the region rated "among the best" nationally.

"What this reflects is the continuing commitment to serve our customers with excellence that each of our employees brings to work every day," said Dr. Michael W. Cropp, Independent Health president and CEO. "I'm very excited to be associated with a team of people that strives to exceed their customers' expectations with everything that they do."

The company also had the second-highest score in the country among 137 plans, as it did last year, behind Health Alliance Plan of Detroit. But J.D. Power does not rank companies nationally, citing differences among the 17 regions that made comparisons difficult.

"They're one of the best in the country," said Rick Millard, J.D. Power's Rochester-based senior director for health care. Other top-ranked firms nationally include California-based Kaiser Permanente and Dean Health Plan of Madison, Wis.

The 2011 U.S. Member Health Insurance Plan Study represents the latest national accolade for Independent Health, which has developed a reputation for customer service and satisfaction, and puts significant emphasis internally on maintaining and improving on that. "We try to raise the bar and keep it going," Cropp said.

Besides its ranking last year by J.D. Power, the company was recently named the highest-rated health plan in the nation for customer service for the second straight year by the National Committee for Quality Assurance. It has also received other honors in the past from NCQA, Consumer Reports and U.S. News & World Report.

"Independent Health is honored to once again be recognized by an organization that is synonymous with quality and customer satisfaction," Cropp said.

But the study also reflects the strong performance of all three local nonprofit carriers, which generally perform higher on such surveys than big national and for-profit companies.

According to the Westlake Village, Calif.-based research firm, Independent Health scored 762 on a 1,000-point scale, followed distantly by Excellus at 712. Health Alliance in Detroit, the most highly ranked health plan in the country, scored 769.

Empire BlueCross BlueShield, the New York City-based subsidiary of Indianapolis-based WellPoint, the nation's largest health insurer, came in third at 702, followed by Philadelphia-based Cigna at 698. WellPoint and Cigna are public, for-profit companies.

HealthNow rounded out the top five at 692. The regional average was 685, with Hartford-based Aetna, MVP Health Care of Schenectady, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, and New York City's Emblem Health, Group Health and Oxford coming in lower.

Millard said the highest-performing plans tended to be "integrated delivery systems," in which insurers are closely linked to a hospital. Independent Health was the exception.

This is the fifth year of the study, which measures and ranks members' experiences and satisfaction in seven categories that show how well an insurer satisfies customers with value, benefits and service. Independent Health scored at the highest level in all but one.

The survey of 33,039 commercial plan members, including 3,262 in New York and New Jersey, was conducted online in December and January.

It found overall member satisfaction with insurers declining nationwide to a national average of 696, the lowest level since the study started.

"Commercial health insurance is not much liked in terms of member satisfaction, and it's been steadily going down for a period of time," Millard said. "This is one of the industries that gets one of the lowest ratings. It's a very difficult sector to keep people satisfied."

There were big drops in satisfaction with communication, claims processing and statements, and a slight drop in satisfaction with coverage and benefits.

The New York-New Jersey region was even lower, and declined "considerably" from 2010. Yet Independent Health and Excellus gained two points from 2010, while HealthNow fell 19 points from 711 to 692.

"Given all the changes and dynamics in the industry, it's more and more challenging for health plans to keep members satisfied," Cropp said. "The overall scrutiny, all the changes going on around us, it's not surprising that the scores in the industry are going down. But it's certainly gratifying that our score is going up."

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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