Shares of UnitedHealth Group soared on Tuesday after the company reported third-quarter results that beat expectations for profit and revenue while putting a focus on the Minnetonka-based company’s expanding business running outpatient medical centers.
David Wichmann, the UnitedHealth Group chief executive, told investors during a conference call that the company is trying to develop a “next-generation” health care system, an ambition furthered in June by the purchase of DaVita Medical Group, which added more than 200 clinics across five states.
It was the third consecutive quarter that UnitedHealth beat expectations and raised financial guidance for the year, even as the company’s stock price has suffered in 2019 with talk among some Democratic presidential candidates of a “Medicare for All” system that could upend the private market.
“We have a strong track record of thriving in fluid environments, similar to the one we find ourselves in today,” Wichmann said. “We are uniquely diverse with significant experience and weight in every aspect of health care.”
Earnings during the quarter were better than expected in the company’s Optum health care services business, analysts said, as well as its legacy health insurance business UnitedHealthcare. And medical cost trends were “well controlled,” said Peter Costa, an analyst with Wells Fargo, in a note to investors.
Yet analyst John Ransom of Raymond James noted during Tuesday’s conference call something of a disconnect between the many anecdotes of efficient care being touted by UnitedHealth Group and the broader trend of health care costs continuing to grow much faster than inflation. A September survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation on employer-sponsored health insurance found the annual cost of family coverage now exceeds $20,000.
“The Kaiser survey and the political landscape is pointing to this being kind of a bigger and bigger problem,” Ransom said. “So, is there a horizon where costs shift downward, or are we just stuck at 5 to 6 percent [increases] forever more, no matter what we do?”
Wichmann replied that he believed cost trends are starting to improve. Expensive new medications are one factor driving up costs, added Andrew Witty, the Optum chief executive. Another is that the company hasn’t yet been able to bring its clinic business to “industrial scale across the U.S.,” Witty said.
“I gave three or four OptumCare examples where we’re now seeing material reductions in cost,” said Witty, who mentioned the company’s large primary-care groups in California, New Jersey, Nevada and Texas. “Our goal now is ... to spread that activity across the broader network of Optum, nationally.”
UnitedHealth Group is Minnesota’s largest company with 320,000 employees worldwide, including about 18,000 workers in the state. UnitedHealthcare is the nation’s largest health insurer, providing coverage in the U.S. to about 43.5 million people at the end of September.
During the third quarter, UnitedHealth posted earnings of $3.54 billion on $60.35 billion of revenue, according to numbers released Tuesday, better than year-ago quarterly profit of $3.19 billion on $56.56 billion of revenue. Adjusted earnings per share of $3.88 beat by 13 cents the expectations of analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters.
Earnings and revenue grew faster within Optum — which includes divisions for health care delivery, pharmacy benefits and health care consulting — than at UnitedHealthcare. Based on the results, United increased its full-year outlook for adjusted net earnings to a range of $14.90 to $15 per share, an increase of 15 cents per share at the midpoint.
Third-quarter revenue in the Optum division that includes the growing medical clinic business increased 34% compared with the year-ago quarter to $8.1 billion. Expansion of behavioral-health services also contributed to the growth, the company said.
Investor sentiment for managed-care companies like United “turned abruptly negative a year ago and has stubbornly remained there,” wrote David Windley, an analyst with Jefferies, in a note to investors this month. “The primary poison in the punch bowl, political risk, won’t likely abate for at least another nine months.”
UnitedHealth Group executives on Tuesday, however, didn’t address the political discussion but focused on growth initiatives.
Within UnitedHealthcare, the company is picking up employer-group customers, Wichmann said, due in part to its partnership with a Minneapolis-based startup company called Bind. Dirk McMahon, the UnitedHealthcare chief executive, said the company’s business serving as a third-party administrator for large “self-insured” employer health plans added about 140,000 enrollees during the third quarter.
Shares of UnitedHealth Group closed on Tuesday at $238.59, up more than 8% for the day.