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UnitedHealth profits by not paying for care & the Business case for Single Payer

UnitedHealth Group Earnings: What They Suggest about Patient Access to Care
American Hospital Association
July 15, 2021
By Rick Pollack, AHA President and CEO

Today UnitedHealth Group announced a jaw-dropping $6 billion in earnings in a single quarter. But not enough has been said about a big contributor to these profits: not paying for health care services. During the same quarter last year the company noted its $9.2 billion in profit was due in part to “broad-based deferral of care.” What that means in real-life: profit was earned off missed childhood vaccinations, reduced access to opioid misuse treatment and avoided emergency care for cardiac arrest. But even this isn’t the full story.

Throughout the course of the pandemic, United pursued a number of changes to its policies to further restrict patients’ coverage. United didn’t just profit from avoided care, it actively sought to scale back what care it would pay for at the same time.

*  Specialty Pharmacy Services: In many parts of the country, United has been rolling out coverage restrictions that no longer permit patients to access specialty pharmacy therapies in a hospital outpatient department even if that is where their doctors practice.

*  Surgeries: United will no longer cover a large number of surgical procedures performed in hospital outpatient departments.

*  Lab and Radiology Services: United has announced plans to restrict coverage for many lab and radiology services provided by hospitals and outpatient departments.

*  Primary Care and Specialty Services:  United, the nation’s largest employer of physicians, says it will begin restricting coverage for most physician evaluation and management services provided in hospital outpatient departments, including provider-based clinics.

United routinely rolls out these coverage restrictions throughout the year, meaning that enrollees purchase their health plans under one set of rules only to later learn that their providers and cost-sharing responsibilities have changed.

Our top private health insurer is rolling in cash. And it’s reducing coverage
Los Angeles Times
July 20, 2021
By David Lazarus, Business Correspondent

UnitedHealth Group, parent of UnitedHealthcare, the country’s largest private health insurer, earned $15.4 billion in profit last year. It took in more than $9 billion in profit during the first half of this year.

So what does a well-heeled insurer do amid such a windfall? It seeks to reduce people’s coverage, of course.

The insurer won’t cover nonemergency treatment at non-network facilities outside a policyholder’s service area, which is defined as your state of residence and adjoining states.

This change mainly affects UnitedHealthcare members who want to travel to residential treatment facilities, rehabilitation clinics and other nonhospital healthcare providers.

Which is to say, if you’re a UnitedHealthcare member and you need rehab for any reason, you’d better stay in network and you’d better stick close to home. Otherwise, you’ll be footing the bill yourself.

Coverage networks might save insurers a few bucks, but they’re not in the best interest of patients, who should be free to seek the best possible care from the best-qualified doctor or hospital.

Nor, for that matter, should people’s coverage be tethered to their jobs. Lose your job, lose your health insurance — what the hell kind of system is that?

We know from the experience of other developed countries that [insurance risk management] is done most effectively by creating a single risk pool comprising the entire population, and then having a single government program handle all claims consistently, fairly and transparently.

Studies have shown that the taxes paid into such a single-payer system — Medicare for all, say — would be less than the premiums, copays and deductibles that now constitute most out-of-pocket medical expenses for Americans.

Comment by Don McCanne

UnitedHealth Group has demonstrated that it has mastered its ability to increase profits by not paying for health care services. They are serving their corporate shareholders at a cost to their customers, aka patients.

Contrast this private insurer function to what the role of a publicly financed and publicly administered insurer would be. Passive insurer shareholders and profits would play no role. The goal would be to pay for necessary health care services, not avoid them.

Even David Lazarus – the Business Correspondent for the LA Times – sees what UnitedHealth Group does and in response sings the praises of single payer.

Based on Rick Pollack’s comments, the American Hospital Association should be a valuable team member in our efforts to achieve health care justice for all.

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