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A health care worker prepares to care for a coronavirus patient in a hospital ICU. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

UnitedHealth Group's profit in the third quarter dipped 10% as people sought health care at rates "more closely approaching normal," executives said on an earnings call today.

Yes, but: UnitedHealth's quarterly earnings still hit $3.2 billion, and even though the health insurance division is paying more in medical claims, more people also are going to doctors' practices, urgent care facilities and surgery centers owned by UnitedHealth.

Between the lines: The second quarter was UnitedHealth's most profitable quarter ever.

  • The third quarter of this year more closely resembled historical trends.
  • 81.9% of the company's collected health insurance premiums went toward medical care, compared with 82.4% a year ago. UnitedHealth also has issued some premium rebates.
  • Meanwhile, UnitedHealth is losing lucrative insurance members from hospitality, transportation and energy companies that have laid off people due to the pandemic, and adding members to government programs, especially Medicare Advantage.

The bottom line: More people are coming back into the health care system, many of whom are sicker because they put off care. But those patients, combined with coronavirus hospitalizations, still are not fully offsetting the overall lower use of care, as UnitedHealth raised its profit projections for the rest of 2020.

  • And insurers like UnitedHealth that own health care providers are able to capture dollars that otherwise would have gone out the door permanently.

Go deeper

Jan 22, 2021 - Health

Stabenow: U.S. must put pandemic relief before EV manufacturing

Photo: Axios screenshot

The U.S. needs to focus on helping people get through the coronavirus pandemic before turning to manufacturing, including electric vehicles, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said on Friday at an Axios virtual event.

What she's saying: "We've got to deal with getting our arms around the vaccine, around the pandemic with the vaccines, helping people survive. And ... then robustly reopen the economy. And certainly, clean energy, jobs, is a big part of that."

Jan 23, 2021 - Health

Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries

Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

Pfizer and BioNTech will supply 40 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine to COVAX, the global effort aimed at ensuring that every country has access to COVID-19 vaccines, the drug makers and World Health Organization announced Friday.

Why it matters: WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned earlier this week that the world is "on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure" due to unequal distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategy

Biden signs executive orders on Jan. 21. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

"It's gonna get worse before it gets better": President Biden expects 100,000 Americans to die from COVID-19 during his first six weeks in office.

The big picture: Biden said he's putting America on a wartime footing against the virus, signing 10 executive orders today alone.