Providers of health insurance face a momentous set of challenges in the coming years, a new report from Aite Group finds.

The report, U.S. Consumer Health Sentiments, is based on an October 2011 survey of 1,024 U.S. consumers. The report finds insurers boxed in by spiraling health care costs, rapidly changing consumer expectations and regulatory upheaval.

While not yet fully implemented, the impact of the Affordable Care Act is evident in the numbers. For example, 30% of respondents believe that they will “probably” or “definitely” use one of the signature features of ACA, the health care exchanges, once they are operational in 2014, to shop for health insurance. These findings dovetail with a larger push toward consumerism, with 32% of respondents enrolled in individual health plans acknowledging they look at plan pricing once a year to get the best deal available in the market.

Another manifestation of this is interest in high-deductible health plans.

"Although participation in HDHPs is currently fairly low as compared to PPO and HMO plans, it is bound to increase with the changes suggested by health care reform," the report states. "Adoption has been low in most cases, as health plans have failed to differentiate themselves in the individual insurance market by creating a robust individual plan design or cost-effective HDHPs. As health care reform kicks in, in 2014, health plans that are most creative in managing variations on current plan designs or building new HDHP products will be able to add to their overall membership."

Given the depth and the breadth of the changes under way, insurers will have to place a higher premium on reaching and educating consumers, the report finds, suggesting social media as promising means to accomplish this.

"Despite the increasing popularity of the Internet and the emergence of the social media as a way to interact and share information, few consumers have opted into the idea of following their insurance companies on social media sites. The growth of consumerism in health care, coupled with the right amount of marketing by insurers and improvement in information quality, could drastically improve consumer participation on social media sites in coming years," the report states.

Bill Kenealy writes for Insurance Networking News, a SourceMedia publication.

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