Nov 5, 2021 - Health

Health insurers still aren't that worried about the coronavirus

Health care workers in masks and protective gear care for a COVID-19 patient on a hospital bed.
Hospitals workers care for a COVID-19 patient. Photo: Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images

COVID-19 has affected each health insurance company differently, but the industry remains mostly insulated from the virus' growing toll.

The big picture: Most of the big insurers have sidestepped massive coronavirus-related costs so far this year, due in large part to people putting off other care. And the companies that have had to pay more medical claims are raising premiums on employers and consumers, exactly as they said they would.

Driving the news: Health insurers were very focused during the third quarter on their medical loss ratios, or the percentage of premiums that are paid toward health care services and drugs.

  • UnitedHealth: Medical claims came in lower than expected, and the company believes the worst of COVID may be over.
  • Anthem: Similar to UnitedHealth, Anthem's MLR was lower than predicted. Higher COVID costs during August's surge were more than offset by people deferring other types of care.
  • CVS Health: Medical expenses were higher than expected, but CVS expects its Aetna plans will bounce back in 2022 with fewer COVID costs, and with profitability expected to remain high.
  • Cigna: COVID costs were higher in employer plans, and people in Cigna's Affordable Care Act plans also were sicker than expected. However, the insurer is raising premiums on some plans next year to maintain higher profits, even if it means losing some members. As Cigna CEO David Cordani told investors on an earnings call yesterday, "We are willing to make targeted tradeoffs."
  • Humana: Its Medicare Advantage members continued to delay care, which offset COVID costs, but the difference was not as much as Humana expected, which led to Humana lowering its profit this year. However, the company maintained its initial profit projections for next year, showing it doesn't believe COVID will be a major factor on its finances.
  • Centene: Medical expenses were in line with Wall Street's forecasts.
  • Molina: ACA plan members got a lot more care than expected, but Molina's overall MLR tracked with industry estimates.

Keep in mind: Most large employers pay their own medical claims and use insurers as claims administrators.

  • That means employers are capturing savings if the amount of deferred care from their workers is outpacing workers' COVID costs.

The bottom line: Health insurers remain significantly more profitable today than they were before the pandemic, even after factoring in COVID costs.

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