Executives at UnitedHealth Group Inc. (NYSE:UNH) did not use the words “agent,” “broker,” “consultant” or “commission” today when they went over the company’s first-quarter earnings with securities analysts.
Company executives did say, during a conference call that was streamed live on the Internet, that they fear the 795,000 enrollees in their public health insurance exchange plans will be even sicker than they warned in January. In January, they estimated high claims would lead to $525 million in 2016 policy year exchange plan losses. The company has increased the 2016 exchange plan enrollee loss forecast by $125 million, to $650 million.
But executives also sounded less cheery about the Medicare plan markets, and more interested in bread-and-butter commercial business.
For more about what the executives said, read on.
1. Medicare Advantage plan benefits may wilt in 2017.
UnitedHealth as a whole reported $1.6 billion in net income for the first quarter on $45 billion in revenue, compared with $1.4 billion in net income on $36 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2015.
The company’s health insurance unit, UnitedHealthcare, is reporting $1.9 billion in operating earnings on $36 billion in revenue, compared with $1.9 billion in operating earnings on $33 billion in revenue for the year-earlier quarter.
The company ended the quarter providing or administering major medical coverage for 48 million people, up from 46 million a year earlier.
Medicare supplement (Medigap) enrollment increased to 4.2 million, from 3.9 million.
Medicare Advantage enrollment rose to 3.5 million, from 3.2 million. Enrollment in Medicare Part D prescription drug policies fell to 5 million, from 5.1 million.
David Wichmann, UnitedHealth’s president, said the company believes its Medicare Part D business will be better positioned in 2017.
“We’ve pulled back in a number of markets this year to reposition products,” Wichmann said. The company boosted enrollees through a modest acquisition, he added.
Wichmann said the company’s Medicare Advantage plans continue to appeal to consumers with their networks and benefits stability.
But Steve Nelson, the head of the UnitedHealthcare retirement product unit, said lower-than-expected federal funding for the Medicare Advantage program is forcing the company to think about how to offer stable benefits in an underfunded environment.
“It will be something that we’ll consider and be able to talk more about after we get through our planning season,” Nelson said.
2. Big national accounts are not so easy to reel in.
A year ago, UnitedHealth executives were saying sales of group plans to large employers looked good.
Today, Jeff Alter, the head of the company’s UnitedHealthcare employer product unit, said the national account selling season has been slow this year.
“There aren’t a lot of large clients out to bid,” Alter said. “I think part of that is that the industry does a lot of proactive renewals, to keep some large clients from going out to bid.”
The company will know more about how the big employer market is doing in June, after companies have held their finalist meetings, Alter said.
3. UnitedHealth is happy with sales to small and midsize groups — and it expects to sell plans through “a handful” of PPACA exchanges in 2017.
Daniel Schumacher, the UnitedHealthcare chief operating officer, said the company is seeing “really strong growth” in the small employer and midsize employer markets.
“And we also see, from a pricing standpoint, our competition moving more in line with us,” Schumacher said.
UnitedHealth executives also implied that the company could still be selling coverage through a number of PPACA exchanges in 2017.
This year, the company has been selling coverage through 34 exchanges.
Next year, the company could still be selling through “a handful” of PPACA exchanges in 2017, Hemsley said.
Agents in some states have reported seeing Harken, a UnitedHealth pilot project unit that sells coverage through the PPACA exchange system in some markets, pulling back on sales compensation for 2016, but Hemsley said Harken is “a small and interesting” unit.
“We will stay with it,” Hemsley said. “It’s a very modest pilot position. So, it really doesn’t affect our review in terms of the way we’re thinking about our positioning on exchanges on a state-by-state basis.”
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