Recently, UnitedHealth Group signaled they will be exiting Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces in several states following losses they sustained because too many sick people are buying their plans and using their insurance.
UnitedHealth seems to have learned what many people at the bottom of the health care delivery system have known all along: Those who haven’t had insurance often need it the most. UnitedHealth is in good company, though, as many players selling plans in the marketplace seem to have underestimated the pent-up demand for medical services. Thus, they priced themselves a little too competitively, while also ending up with significantly sicker enrollees than they had anticipated. The attitude coming from UnitedHealth seems to be to cut their losses (insured people) and maybe come back in when the market’s more palatable and they have plans that stand to make them more revenue.
UnitedHealth seems to be a victim of the law’s success. It turns out that the people who had been locked out of access to affordable insurance prior to implementation of the ACA, perhaps due to a pre-existing medical condition, lack of steady income or working for an employer who doesn’t offer it, haven’t been getting the regular (now free, thanks to the ACA) preventive maintenance their bodies need. As a result, they need a little – or in some cases, a lot – more of a tune-up now that they can actually afford to purchase and use insurance.
These sick Americans have posed a problem for a company like UnitedHealth, the nation’s largest health insurer, who cited losses in the markets of $720 million last year, or 0.46 percent of their annual revenue.
At this point, it feels like UnitedHealth is trying to signal three horn blasts from the Wall. Unfortunately, the threat they face is not an undead army threatening peace throughout the world, but actually a chronically ill, severely underserved population whose threat seems to mainly consist of making a very minor dent in United’s $157.1 billion in 2015 revenue.
I can only imagine that insurers like United were salivating at the pool of 12.7 million new potential customers who purchased health insurance through marketplaces. After all, economic theory tends to hold that a bunch of new customers = $$$$$$. And while I’m not sure that’s exactly how it’s spelled out in “The Wealth of Nations,” it does hold that this great new economic market created by the ACA is taking its time in getting settled as insurers get accustomed to who marketplace consumers are, what they need and how companies can best provide it while still making significant amounts of money.
It has certainly not been smooth sailing, but it turns out the ACA isn’t going anywhere. The positive things it has done – covering people with pre-existing conditions, allowing young people to stay on their parents’ plans longer and capping out-of-pocket expenses – are too darn common-sensical and liked(!) for even critics of the law to propose abolishing.
And while debating topics like the Congressional undermining of “risk corridor adjustment” payments speaks to the wonk in all of us, it speaks to the practicality of none – especially the thousands of affected patients and their families impacted by UnitedHealth leaving the market who may, once again, be looking for good insurance.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Thankfully, he was a little more optimistic in saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I hope that the arc of history is long enough for UnitedHealth to regret not offering insurance to hardworking families.