An increasing share of eHealth’s Medicare Advantage and Medicare supplement customers are now enrolling for coverage online.
New data (PDF) from the insurer reveal a 69% increase in online enrollments in the fourth quarter of 2018 versus Q4 2017. And the share of customers using online tools for prescription drug coverage and provider network tools also significantly increased in the latest enrollment period.
The report shows 22% of all MA and Medigap enrollments in Q4 2018 were online, compared to 13% in the same quarter in 2017. Looking at the entire year, 16% of all MA and Medigap enrollments occurred online, compared to 10% in 2017.
"These stats reflect a growing comfort level among Medicare beneficiaries researching and buying products as personal and important to them as their Medicare insurance," Lisa Zamosky, senior director of communications for eHealth, told FierceHealthcare. "Keeping in mind that some people will always expect and need personal help from a licensed agent, there’s no reason that the majority of Medicare insurance enrollments shouldn’t take place online at some time in the near future."
More and more, Medicare customers are online and using smartphones, eHealth found. Seventy-nine percent of respondents own a laptop or desktop, and the same number own a smartphone. And 52% of respondents said they own a tablet-style computer.
Zamosky said she was somewhat surprised to see a majority of Medicare customers age 80 and older said they currently own a smartphone.
"This underscores how important a nimble and effective mobile experience will be for Medicare enrollees," she said.
RELATED: HHS’ Hargan says Trump administration is bullish on future of Medicare Advantage
When it comes to prescription drug purchases, 20% of eHealth customers selecting MA prescription drug plans used the comparison tool in Q4, up from 18% the year before. And 24% of customers selecting Part D prescription drug plans used the comparison tool—equal to the same percentage in the previous year.
Zamosky notes that despite the progress, there are still challenges to enrolling in Medicare plans online. The first challenge is simplifying the shopping process for a product that is quite complex, so people can quickly and easily find the Medicare product that best meets their needs. And this requires focusing the program on individual needs to avoid overwhelming customers.
The second challenge is that consumers’ online commerce expectations are constantly changing.
"An e-commerce platform for Medicare customers (or any consumer category, for that matter) needs to be nimble and able to adjust and adapt to changing consumer expectations," Zamosky said.
And finally, it will be important to give enrollees access to personal help and advice from a licensed agent at some point during the process, she said.
"Medicare is complex and people’s needs are complex and changing over time—sometimes from one enrollment period to the next," she said. "While not everyone shopping online for Medicare coverage needs an accessible agent to help them find the best plan option, it’s common for people to use our online marketplace to narrow down their top few choices and then to want to discuss the details with an experienced professional to make a final selection."
In addition, as Medicare plans increasingly add a wider range of benefits that address social determinants of health and other nonmedical services, Zamosky says people will benefit from tools that help them identify and assess the plans with the specific services they need.