Health insurance plans purchased through public health care exchanges often generate levels of member satisfaction higher than plans obtained through employers, according to a J.D. Power study.

Enrollees in plans bought through an exchange rated satisfaction at 696 in 2014 (on a 1,000-point scale), compared with an average of 676 for traditional, mostly employer-based plans, according to the study. One main reason people shopping through the marketplaces are more satisfied is the choice of plans available, says Rick Johnson, health care practice leader at J.D. Power in Washington. In fact, when comparing marketplace plan satisfaction and employer-sponsored plans that offer a choice of plans, the satisfaction level is equal at 696. “Choice has a role in driving the statistics when people can pick a plan that meets their needs at a price point they want,” Johnson says.

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Most of the population participating in the exchange have not had easy access to insurance in the past, therefore they are pleased with the amount of choice and transparency with their marketplace purchased plans, says John Holahan, a fellow at think tank The Urban Institute in Washington. “Once they are in [an exchange], there are lots of choices and price points for them,” he says. “They never had anything like this before.”

That compares with an employer plan, where choices are often made by the employer. Although employers may do a reasonable job in selecting the plans, they are usually more costly, due to a lack of subsides and fewer options, Holahan says.

Leveled playing field

In the future, satisfaction levels may become more equal due to the consumer-centric health care movement. In the past, employers picked the plan. As such, insurers marketed to the employers, not the employee. But now, “you are seeing this huge change because of the consumer-centric nature of health care,” Johnson explains. “[Public] exchanges are first out of the gate with that in trying to communicate with potential members and woo them.”

Non-marketplace plans are working very hard to get to that point, he adds, but they still have a ways to go and lack the direct line to plan members that the marketplaces provide.

Also see: Should states step in if subsides are ruled illegal?

Brokers can play a role by giving more choice to fit employees’ needs while keeping in mind price is very important, Johnson says. “[Price] is the most important attribute for an exchange environment and second most important for a non-exchange environment,” he says. “It has to be something that fits peoples’ needs and is priced right. A broker has a role in helping with that.”

Johnson sees this trend of giving more choice to employees accelerating  quicker as more employers turn to private health care exchanges. Right now, data is thin on private exchanges, since many employees do not know they are in fact purchasing coverage through a private exchange. “Hopefully that will change,” Johnson says.

J.D. Power’s 1,000 point satisfaction rating was based on consumers rating of claims processing; communications; cost; coverage and benefits; customer service; and provider selection.

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