Jul 19, 2019

UnitedHealth's political and financial heft just keeps growing

UnitedHealth's headquarters in Minnesota. Photo: Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images

UnitedHealth Group's stock fell 2.3% yesterday even though the company continues to print money and raised its profit projections for the rest of the year.

The big picture: Wall Street is quibbling over the "quality" of UnitedHealth's earnings beat, but that doesn't really matter. UnitedHealth remains the most financially powerful private entity in the U.S. health care system, and any reforms would be up against its growing empire.

By the numbers: UnitedHealth is not just a health insurance company, but that is still its biggest component.

  • 39 million people had full-scale medical coverage through UnitedHealthcare as of June 30. About two-thirds of its insurance premium revenue comes from government programs.
  • UnitedHealth continues to expand OptumRx, which is part of the pharmacy benefits triumvirate that controls how prescription drugs are paid for.
  • Perhaps most importantly, UnitedHealth increasingly is becoming your surgeon or doctor, and now it's taking over back-end operations for hospitals.

Why it matters: Because UnitedHealth touches almost every part of the health care system, it has every incentive to keep certain policies as they are or push for reforms that benefit its shareholders.

  • UnitedHealth retains 9 outside lobbying firms in addition to its own stable of state and federal lobbyists.
  • On the federal level, they have aggressively worked to eliminate the Affordable Care Act's tax on health insurers, won the battle over the drug rebate rule and have pushed for other things like expanding short-term plans.
  • UnitedHealth is also part of the national coalition to kill "Medicare for All" and actively denounced Medicare for All earlier this year.

The bottom line: Wall Street's reactions shouldn't obscure just how much power UnitedHealth Group has and continues to accumulate.

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