The retreat from insurance exchanges that UnitedHealth Group announced this week doesn’t include all segments of the company.

Harken Health, an independent subsidiary UnitedHealth launched last year that gives subscribers free care at a certain primary care clinics, continues to see opportunity.

The chief executive of Harken Health, Tom Vanderheyden, said in an interview with the Star Tribune in March that his company had expansion plans for 2017, but didn’t provide specifics. On Wednesday, a company spokeswoman said Harken Health still expects to grow next year on exchanges as well as with policies in the “off-exchange” market.

“Harken was developed to provide remarkable care and insurance to individuals, and the exchange is one of the ways we reach these individuals in Atlanta and Chicago,” Vanderheyden said Wednesday in a statement. “We remain committed to our members in our existing markets and are moving full speed ahead with our expansion plans.”

Last year, UnitedHealth provided $65 million in capital to launch Harken Health, which currently sells coverage in Atlanta and Chicago.

Stock analysts asked about the business on Tuesday when the nation’s largest health insurer announced that it would continue operations next year in just a handful of the 34 states where it currently sells exchange policies.

“Harken is a small and interesting innovation that we are considering and we will stay with it,” UnitedHealth Group Chief Executive Stephen Hemsley said Tuesday. “It’s in a very modest pilot position.”

Harken Health is distinct from other UnitedHealth insurance plans in giving subscribers unlimited access to a limited number of health centers that Harken operates. The health centers provide primary care without copays, and also offer everything from sessions with “health coaches” to classes in nutrition, tai chi and yoga.

The announcement Tuesday from UnitedHealth Group made waves because it underscores a potential consequence of health insurers losing money on the exchanges, which were launched for 2014 under the federal health law. Many companies, including insurers in Minnesota, say they currently are posting losses on the business.

Minnesota saw a significant exit from its health insurance exchange in September 2014 when Golden Valley-based PreferredOne announced it would not return to the MNsure market due to losses. Whereas PreferredOne had more than 50 percent of the commercial sign-ups through MNsure at the time, UnitedHealthcare has been a relatively small player on the exchanges nationally.

While exits draw headlines, the federal government says the number of new entrants for 2016 was slightly larger than the tally of insurers that dropped the exchanges. Harken Health is an example of a new name that has emerged since major health law changes took effect in 2014, although it’s somewhat unusual in being connected with an established carrier.

The exchanges are an option for individuals and families who purchase non-group coverage, and competition is key for consumer choice and controlling premium costs.

UnitedHealth Group hasn’t said exactly how many state exchanges it will leave next year. Bloomberg reported Wednesday that regulators in at least 22 states have said the company won’t be returning.


Twitter: @chrissnowbeck