With elective procedures delayed, UnitedHealth profit spikes

Business

FILE – This Oct. 16, 2012, file photo, shows a portion of the UnitedHealth Group Inc.’s campus in Minnetonka, Minn. UnitedHealth Group reports financial results Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

The nation’s largest health insurer more than doubled its second-quarter profit, as COVID-19 shutdowns kept patients out of doctor’s offices and off operating tables.

UnitedHealth’s medical costs tumbled 11% to $34.68 billion with demand for care suppressed from the middle of March until it started to recover in May. Toward the end of the quarter, a more normalized level of care was returning.

UnitedHealth Group Inc. earned $6.64 billion in the three-month window that ended June 30, or nearly half of what it earned all last year. Adjusted earnings totaled $7.12 per share. That easily beat the $5.28 that Wall Street had expected, according to a poll by FactSet.

UnitedHealth’s better-than-expected performance “punctuates just how much it benefited from COVID-19 induced low utilization,” Jefferies analyst David Windley said in a research note.

Total revenue climbed about 3% to $62.14 billion, falling short of analyst expectations for $63.48 billion.

The insurer’s commercial enrollment, which includes coverage offered by employers, slipped about 2% in the quarter to 26.8 million people.

Researchers estimate that millions of people lost health coverage in the quarter as companies trimmed staff to adjust for the shutdowns.

UnitedHealth said Wednesday that the enrollment decline lagged soaring unemployment brought on by the pandemic because companies continued to provide benefits to furloughed employees.

UnitedHealth runs UnitedHealthcare, a health insurance business that covers about 48 million people, mostly in the United States. The company’s Optum segment also runs one of the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit management operations as well as a growing number of clinics and urgent care and surgery centers.

Surgical procedures and other medical visits are expected to ramp up in the year’s second half in markets where the pandemic is brought under control. Company officials also said Wednesday they expect to incure more costs from COVID-19 cases.

UnitedHealth and several other insurers have waived costs tied to COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment in order to encourage patients to seek care.

Uncertainty about how the virus will ultimately affect their business has led most health insurers to speak cautiously of their expectations for the year.

UnitedHealth on Wednesday stuck to annual per-share adjusted earnings projections it provided late last year of between $16.25 and $16.55 for 2020.

Wall Street is looking for around $16.30 per share, according to FactSet.

The lack of claims during the quarter has pushed insurance providers like UnitedHealth to offer premium credits to some customers and to waive costs tied to doctor visits and other care outside COVID-19 cases.

UnitedHealth also is offering free telehealth services and has provided $1.5 billion in support through premium credits and cost waivers, among other things.

Shares of UnitedHealth, a Dow Jones industrial average component, rose less than 1% in mid-morning trading. The Dow was up about 1.4%.

UnitedHealth’s stock hit an all-time high in February before the pandemic tossed U.S. markets into turmoil, and the company’s stock plunged. By June, however, the Minnetonka, Minnesota, company’s shares were hitting new highs again.

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Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter: @thpmurphy

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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