UnitedHealth Group Encouraged by More MA Benefits

In-home care providers aren’t the only players looking forward to expanded Medicare Advantage (MA) benefits in 2019. Insurers that offer MA plans—notably behemoth UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH)—are also looking ahead and seeing the addition of more benefits as a major bonus.

Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group offers medical benefits through its businesses UnitedHealthcare and Optum, which also provides some health care services in the home. It is the largest provider of Medicare Advantage benefits in the United States, and that line of business saw significant expansion in the first quarter of 2018.

During the first quarter of the year, UnitedHealthcare served 330,000 seniors in its MA plans, a 10.6% jump year over year, the company announced Tuesday, in conjunction with its Q1 2018 earnings results. It expects a long-term growth rate of 8% in Medicare Advantage, and believes that recent MA policy changes will help drive this growth.

“…We’re encouraged by what we’re seeing with respect to policy changes, several policy changes really providing the framework for continued momentum and popularity,” Brian Thompson, CEO of UnitedHealthcare, Medicare & Retirement at UnitedHealth Group, said during the company’s earnings call. “I think we’ll see expanded senior choice, more customization of specific population benefits and really the flexibility to expand the value of our benefits, all really very positive advances for those served and those choosing Medicare Advantage.”

The comments come on the heels of an announcement from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) that MA plans could add more supplemental benefits in 2019, including non-skilled in-home care supports.

The expansion was met with enthusiasm from the in-home care industry, but also questions about whether and how insurers will offer this type of benefit. UnitedHealth declined to elaborate on comments made during the earnings call for this story.

During the quarter, UnitedHealth Group also saw growth in its Optum HouseCalls business, which offers in-home clinical health evaluations and ongoing care. In fact, the business is a bright spot for UnitedHealth Group; Optum HouseCalls delivered 342,000 in-home visits in the first quarter of 2018. The company expects overall visits to be 12% higher in 2018 compared to last year.

Its growth in this area could put other competitors that have made recent acquisitions or expressed intent to expand in the home care space on notice. By acquiring CVS Health (NYSE: CVS), Aetna (NYSE: AET) may be mimicking UnitedHealth Group, according to Bruce Japsen in Forbes. Another rival, Humana (NYSE: HUM), has also taken steps by acquiring Kindred Healthcare’s (NYSE: KND) home health and hospice business.

UnitedHealthcare further expressed interest in expanding other services that would address social determinants of health and close care gaps.

“Data from other countries and our own experience indicate social investments reduce health care costs, and addressing these social determinants is the next frontier in serving the whole person here in the U.S.,” Steve Nelson, CEO at UnitedHealthcare, said during the call. “That’s why we are engaged in advancing more affordable housing, more reliable transpiration and more sustainable employment as well as the data integration to better coordinate these and other services.”

The company’s community and state care managers and community health workers organize social services for people 10,000 times each month, Nelson said.

Conceivably, the expanding outreach to home-based services could be furthered with the addition of supplemental benefits in the years ahead. At-home meal delivery, which addresses food insecurity among homebound Americans, could also be on the table for reimbursement.

“As we look forward, we will certainly approach 2019 with an optimistic mindset and expect for the broad-based benefit stability in the marketplace at large,” Thompson said.

Written by Amy Baxter

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Amy Baxter
Assistant Editor at Home Health Care News
When not writing about all things home health, Amy fulfills her lifelong dream of becoming a pirate by sailing in regattas and enjoying rum. Fun fact: she sailed 333 miles across Lake Michigan in the Chicago Yacht Club "Race to Mackinac."