NU Online News Service, Jan. 12, 2004, 5:25 p.m. EST – WellPoint Health Networks Inc., Thousand Oaks, Calif., reports that the effects of the 2003-2004 influenza outbreak on medical claims costs appear to be modest.[@@]

The outbreak may have led to a very small increase in fourth-quarter visits to pediatricians and other doctors, but it has not led to a noticeable increase in costs for hospital care, according to WellPoint Chief Financial Officer David Colby.

Colby made the remarks at a WellPoint analyst conference. WellPoint has filed a transcript of the conference with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The transcript shows Colby also talked about topics such as the shift in the business mix at WellPoint’s national UniCare health insurance unit and the effects of “benefit buy downs” on average premium increases.

When WellPoint acquired UniCare from John Hancock Financial Services Inc., Boston, in 1997, Hancock focused on administering large, self-insured employee health plans.

A couple of years ago, the majority of the UniCare accounts still were “administrative services only” accounts, Colby said during the analyst conference.

“Now, the majority are insured as we grow … the middle market and individual and small group,” Colby said.

Colby also said buy downs, or moves to trade reductions in benefits for reductions in premium increases, have cut premiums at the typical employer-sponsored plan by about 2 percentage points in 2003.

In April, WellPoint was predicting that buy downs would cut premium increases by about 3 percentage points.

Colby said rates ended up increasing an average of about 10% in 2003.