- Pent-up demand for delayed healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic is pressuring medical costs for health insurers that had a financial windfall during the pandemic amid low utilization.
- UnitedHealth, the parent company of the largest private payer in the U.S., expects its medical loss ratio — the share of premiums spent on member’s healthcare costs — to be higher than previously expected in the second quarter of 2023, due to a surge in outpatient care utilization among seniors, CFO John Rex said Tuesday during Goldman Sachs’ investor conference.
- The news sent UnitedHealth’s stock down 7% in morning trade Wednesday, and affected other Medicare-focused health insurers as well. Humana, CVS and Centene — the three largest MA insurers by enrollee after UnitedHealth — dropped 13%, 6% and 8%, respectively.
The early days of COVID saw widespread halts in nonessential services, causing visits to plunge with an estimated one-third of U.S. adults delaying or foregoing medical care in the pandemic’s first year. By 2022, the sizable rebound in deferred care that many predicted had yet to materialize.
Instead, patient volumes increased, but didn’t return to normal levels, threatening the financial health of hospitals, which rely on utilization for revenue. However, the trend helped payers, which reaped some of their highest profits in history during the pandemic on low medical spend.
Now, early signs suggest utilization may again be increasing, with the cost of rebounding care coming around to hit payers. UnitedHealth now expects its MLR for the second quarter to reach or exceed its full-year target of 82.1% to 83.1%.
“As you look at a Q2, you would expect Q2 medical care ratio to be somewhere in the zone of probably the upper bound or moderately above the upper bound of our full-year outlook,” Rex said. “I would expect at this distance that the full year would probably settle in in the upper half of the existing range we set up.”
In comparison, the insurer reported an MLR of 82.2% in the first quarter of 2023. UnitedHealth’s MLR was 82% in 2022.
UnitedHealth said the MLR increase is because medical activity is normalizing after COVID kept seniors away from non-essential care.
“We’re seeing as behaviors kind of normalize across the country in a lot of different ways and mask mandates are dropped, especially in physician offices, we're seeing that more seniors are just more comfortable accessing services for things that they might have pushed off a bit like knees and hips,” said Tim Noel, UnitedHealth’s chief executive for Medicare and retirement.
The Minnetonka, Minnesota-based insurer has seen strong outpatient demand through April, May and June, particularly in hips and knees with high volumes at its owned ambulatory surgical centers and within its Medicare business, executives said.
Inpatient volumes have remained consistent, and while outpatient utilization has increased, patient acuity has remained the same. Optum Health’s behavioral businesses are also seeing higher utilization in the second quarter, said Patrick Conway, CEO of Care Solutions at Optum, UnitedHealth’s health services division.
UnitedHealth doesn’t expect this higher activity to let up anytime soon. As a result, the payer incorporated higher outpatient utilization into its Medicare Advantage plan bids for 2024, which were placed in early June. The move attests to the longer duration of the trend, SVB Securities analyst Whit Mayo wrote in a note.
“Assuming it is going to end quickly wouldn’t be prudent on our part,” Rex said. “We’ll see how this progresses here.”