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.

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