Average consumers have a hard time picking an affordable health plan.

When asked to pick the lowest-cost plan from a set of eight, ordinary people in one study came up with the right answer just 21 percent of the time.

Business grad students with above-average test scores had an easier time: They figured out the right answer 73 percent of the time.

Eric Johnson, a Columbia University marketing researcher, and four colleagues reported those conclusions in an article distributed by the University of Pennsylvania law school.

How well consumers pick health plans could become more important in October, when the exchanges open for enrollment, and the question remains important for researchers and policymakers looking at many consumers already enrolled in existing health plans, researchers said.

To study the topic, the researchers gave ordinary people a basic health insurance literacy course; told them they were buying health insurance for a family that would need a certain amount of health care per year; then offered a list of plans.

The researchers gave the premium, co-payment and deductible amounts for each.

When the average consumers chose from a four-plan menu, they came up with the right answer 42 percent of the time. Expanding the menu to eight cut the success rate in half.

The researchers also had MBA students go through the same process. They were much more successful than the other test subjects, in part because many of them knew how to use Excel to do the math, the researchers said.

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