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Independent Health Association, the second-largest health insurer in Western New York, is the highest-rated health insurer for quality and customer satisfaction in the nation, according to the latest study from J.D. Power and Associates.

Independent Health is also the highest-ranked health insurance plan in New York and New Jersey for the fourth straight year, according to the California-based research firm known for its ratings of companies based on quality and customer satisfaction.

Independent Health’s score of 763 on a 1,000-point scale easily bested not only its rivals and the regional average of 694, but also the average score nationwide of 701, in the 2013 U.S. Member Health Plan Study. The regional average satisfaction rating fell by five points from 2012.

“This prestigious award reinforces what we strive to do each day – to engage our members to improve their health while we provide quality coverage and service to our members,” said Dr. Michael W. Cropp, Independent Health’s president and CEO. “Our members want a trusted source to help them simplify and navigate the complex health care system, and this study provides a credible representation of the experience they have with us during a time of great change in health care.”

Among Independent Health’s local rivals, Buffalo-based HealthNow New York’s BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and BlueShield of Northeastern New York came in fourth in the regional rankings, with a score of 711.

Univera Healthcare was not listed separately, but its parent, Rochester-based Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, scored 695, just above the regional average.

This is the first time Independent Health has taken the top ranking in the country, after missing it by one point last year. Nationally, three Kaiser Foundation Health Plans in California, Michigan and the Mid-Atlantic trailed closely behind Independent Health, with scores between 750 and 760.

The J.D. Power regional awards are designed to recognize health insurers that provide a high level of customer satisfaction. Independent Health received five “Power Circles” – like five stars – in J.D. Power’s Member Satisfaction Index, the highest rating a health plan can achieve.

“It sends a message to our customers and the marketplace that we listen and understand, and that we make investments to better meet their needs,” Cropp said. “And it sends a message to our team that we’re on the right path, that by making investments to better serve our members and understand their needs, that we are driving in the right direction for not just satisfaction and experience, but to be able to provide better quality and affordability.”

Albany-based Capital District Physicians Health Plan came in second in the region with a score of 755, followed by New York City-based Empire BlueCross BlueShield, a subsidiary of Indianapolis-based WellPoint, which rated 725. New Jersey’s Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield ranked fifth, scoring 707.

Cigna Corp. of Philadelphia and Schenectady-based MVP Health Care came in sixth and seventh, respectively, followed by Excellus. UnitedHealth Group, Aetna, Emblem Health and United subsidiary Oxford Health Plan all came in below average.

This is the seventh year J.D. Power has performed a survey of consumers across the country to assess their experiences as health plan members. Conducted in December and January through an online survey across 17 regions, the annual study is based on the responses of 33,535 members in 136 health plans nationwide, representing more than 90 percent of U.S. commercial HMOs, preferred provider organizations and point-of-service health plans.

Companies, which pay a fee to be included, are evaluated in seven categories: coverage and benefits, information and communication, provider choice, customer service, claims processing, the approval process and statements. Independent Health scored five circles in six of the seven categories; its statements earned it four circles.

“As health care costs continue to increase and members pay a higher percentage of the premium, health plan members are increasingly aware of exactly what they are getting for their premium,” said Rick Millard, senior director of J.D. Power’s health care practice.

Independent Health has racked up a series of accolades in recent years. Besides the J.D. Power awards, Independent Health was cited in the National Committee for Quality Assurance’s most recent rankings for offering one of the highest-rated commercial plans in the country, based on clinical quality, member satisfaction and accreditation standards. In a separate study, the committee also named Independent Health’s plan the top plan in the nation in 2009 and 2010 for customer service.

“Our focus remains on working to improve the health care system and lower costs in our community through improved access and care coordination, and developing plans and services that help our members – and the community – make long-lasting and meaningful changes,” Cropp said.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com