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COVID-19 Could Cut ER Use Permanently: UnitedHealth

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What You Need to Know

  • Some former ER users might have permanently shifted to urgent-care centers, the insurer's CEO says.
  • UnitedHealth's net income fell in the second quarter, and revenue increased.
  • Medicare Advantage and Medicaid enrollment were up.

The COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a permanent reduction in patients’ use of hospital emergency room services.

Executives from UnitedHealth Group talked about that possibility Thursday, during a conference call the company held to go over earnings for the second quarter with securities analysts.

Andrew Witty, the Minnetonka, Minnesota-based health insurer’s CEO, mentioned emergency room use in response to an analyst’s question about whether some of the health care skipped as a result of the pandemic may have been low-value care.

UnitedHealth executives believe that health plan enrollees skipped important checkups and sick visits because of social distancing efforts, medical office procedure changes and other pandemic-related factors. The company is assuming that it will eventually receive extra claims because of the impact of deferred, high-value care.

But Witty said he sees tantalizing signals about emergency room use in the claim trend figures. Emergency room use fell sharply during the pandemic, Witty said.

“It looks pretty sustained down, and it doesn’t seem to be coming back up,” he said. “A lot of people don’t expect that utilization to come back.”

The reduction in emergency room use could be the result of patients making more use of urgent care centers, he said.

“But I would say it’s premature to call it,” Witty said.

UnitedHealth is watching closely to see whether the pandemic has caused a long-lasting shift in patient flows, he said.

UnitedHealth Earnings

UnitedHealth was the first life or health insurer to post second-quarter earnings.

UnitedHealth reported $4.3 billion in net income for the quarter on $71 billion in revenue, compared with $6.6 billion in net income on $62 billion in revenue for the second quarter of 2020.

UnitedHealth’s revenue for the quarter was close to the 2019 annual gross domestic product of Luxembourg, according to data from the World Bank.

Enrollment

UnitedHealth ended the first quarter providing or administering health coverage for 50 million people, up from 48 million people a year earlier.

Here’s what happened to the number of people with key types of UnitedHealth health coverage between the end of the second quarter of 2020 and the end of the latest quarter:

  • Risk-based: 7.8 million (down from 8.1 million)
  • Fee-based: 18 million (down from 19 million)
  • Total Commercial: 26 million (down from 27 million)
  • Medicare Advantage: 6.4 million (up from 5.6 million)
  • Medicaid: 7.1 million (up from 6.2 million)
  • Medicare Supplement (Standardized): 4.4 million (down from 4.5 million)
  • Total Public and Senior: 18 million (up from 16 million)
  • Total Domestic Medical: 44 million (up from 43 million)
  • International: 5.5 million (up from 5.4 million)
  • Worldwide Total: 50 million (up from 48 million)

(Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)