No news is good news for managed care plans that often have been battered in the press, but it isn't the only kind of good news. A recent poll by Harris Interactive shows that the public's perception of health insurers is improving. (The poll of 1,010 was conducted by phone April 5–10.)

"Managed care companies still have a net negative score of 13 points," Harris says, "but this is an improvement from the negative 23 points last year."

The poll asks whether respondents think a certain industry generally does "a good job or bad job of serving" its customers. The score is calculated by subtracting the "good job" score from the "bad job" score. In the case of the category "managed care companies, such as HMOs," it meant subtracting 54 from 41 to come up with –13.

Supposedly, we take our victories where we find them, though this is the sixth consecutive year that health plans registered negative scores. "Only in 1997 and 1998 did managed care have net positive scores," Harris points out.

Immediately below managed care companies is the category "health insurance companies," which scored –19. The two categories overlap somewhat, Harris admits.

"Over the years the distinction between managed care and health insurance has greatly diminished because most insurance companies (and all the larger ones) now provide HMOs, PPOs, and other managed care services," Harris says. "At times the ratings of managed care have been better than health insurance; sometimes they have been worse."

Explaining just why this is so is difficult. "The improvement in the (still very low) score of managed care companies may result from a decline in all news, and especially unfavorable news, about managed care, as the public debate has focused on Medicare reform, the Medicare drug benefit, and the trend toward consumer-directed health plans."

You can stop cheering now.

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