An early look at how Medicare Advantage enrollment is shaping up in 2018

If the figures from January are any indication, Medicare Advantage is poised for another year of enrollment growth.

In a research note analyzing the latest data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Jefferies analysts said that total MA enrollment has increased 4.2% between December 2017 and January 2018. That level of growth mirrors what was seen at the start of last year. Overall Medicare Advantage enrollment was just under 20 million this month.

Group Medicare Advantage enrollment growth, at 10.3% from December to January, was lower than the 12.7% growth seen a year ago. However, the analysts said that’s still a strong showing since 2017 “was one of the best growth years for group MA in the last decade.”

Individual MA enrollment, meanwhile, is “modestly accelerating” relative to the same time last year (2.8% vs. 2.4%), which suggests that the growth rate for this sector in calendar year 2018 could surpass last year’s 6.1%. That's particularly impressive since the health insurance tax has resumed this year, the analysts noted.

RELATED: A look at the Medicare Advantage landscape for 2018

As for individual insurers, Jeffries said MA enrollment growth at most firms so far this year is consistent with company targets. UnitedHealthcare’s enrollment grew 7.3%, Humana’s grew 5.8%, Anthem saw a 3% increase and WellCare saw a 1% increase.

Aetna, however, was a standout, with its 13.4% MA enrollment growth the fastest among publicly traded stocks. Since the company suggested it could achieve growth of 10% or more in 2018, CMS’ data showed it is “clearly off to a strong start,” analysts said.

Cigna, on the other hand, saw a 0.8% decline in MA membership in January—despite Jefferies’ expectation that it could grow enrollment by 5% in calendar year 2018 after bouncing back from sanctions last year. The analysts did note, though, that Medicare age-ins later in the year could boost Cigna’s numbers.

The continued growth of Medicare Advantage—fueled by relatively stable federal funding and aging baby boomers—is one of the chief factors keeping the health insurance sector on solid ground, Fitch Ratings said.

Indeed, insurers have become increasingly dependent on Medicare and Medicaid for both profits and growth, with those two business lines accounting for 59% of the revenues of the country’s five largest publicly traded insurers in 2016.