An unlikely winner in the long-running bull market: Health insurers

By Bertha Coombs
CNBC, August 19, 2018

The bull market, which is about to become the longest running in recent history, has produced healthy returns for investors. The S&P 500 is up well over 300 percent over the last nine years, but health insurance stocks have logged even more impressive gains.

The S&P Managed Care sector, made up of the largest insurers, has gained more than 1,100 percent during the market’s bull run. That’s more than twice as much as the gains in the biotech sector.

Nine years later, two of the biggest health-care winners have seen large growth in part because of Obamacare.

The Medicaid boom

Medicaid expansion under the ACA has resulted in nearly 15 million people gaining coverage under the government health program for the poor and disabled. At the same time, over the last decade, states have increasingly turned to insurers to manage their Medicaid programs.

Medicaid insurer WellCare Health Plan’s shares have gained more than 4,000 percent since March 2009, and its annual revenues have nearly tripled from $6.9 billion to an estimated $18.7 billion this year.

Rival Centene’s shares have gained nearly 1,800 percent over the last nine years. Annual revenues have ballooned from $3.4 billion to an estimated $59.8 billion this year. Centene is up 42 percent year to date, trading near record highs.

At the same time that the Medicaid business has expanded, Medicare has seen big growth over the last decade as more baby boomers have aged into the government health plan for seniors.

For the major health insurers that has meant that their government business has grown faster than the commercial employer and individual insurance plan business. Government plans now account for more than 50 percent of the industry’s insurance revenues.

More diverse businesses

Government plans have been one of the growth drivers for the nation’s largest insurer, UnitedHealth Group, which is up 19 percent year to date, and has seen shares gain nearly 1400 percent over the last nine years.

United’s health plan membership has grown from 32 million to nearly 50 million over the last nine years; its Medicaid and Medicare membership has more than doubled, during the period.

But new business segments outside of health insurance have played a big role in growing the health-care giant’s annual revenues from $87 billion in 2009 to an estimated $225 billion this year. The health services and products under the Optum division have become a key driver of top-line growth.

United’s Optum unit now accounts for 20 percent of revenues, and includes data analytic services, pharmacy benefit management, physician practices and outpatient surgical centers.

Revenues from the services businesses are not subject to the ACA regulatory caps, which require insurers to spend at least 80 percent of premium revenues on medical care. That makes them more profitable.

United’s success has been part of the impetus behind the increasing number of vertical health insurer deals. More health plans have acquired health-care providers and services in order to have greater control over medical costs in their health plans.

Pharmacy benefit giant CVS Health’s $69 billion deal for Aetna and Cigna’s $54 billion deal to buy pharmacy benefit firm Express Scripts are both predicated on trying to driving cost efficiencies by having greater control over a wider range of members’ care.

Meantime, Democrats have revived the health reform debate over single-payer Medicare For All, nine years after investors were rattled by the prospect of single-payer health care under the ACA.

If either side gains traction, analysts say the major insurers have positioned themselves to adjust more readily to the shifting landscape over the last decade.

“Even if it’s Medicare for all, it would probably be Medicare Advantage for All,” with the government funding private Medicare plans, said Deep Banerjee, health-care credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s.

“Health care today is a public-private partnership … it’s very hard to see a system without a private player meaningfully involved,” he said.

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Since enactment and implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) we have heard stories about how tough it has been for the insurance industry. Congress and both the Obama and Trump administrations have responded with measures to ensure the viability of this industry (in spite of blowhard repeal activity of the Republicans that had essentially no detrimental impact on the insurers – they just raised their premiums). You really need to read this very brief summary of the past nine years to understand what a godsend this has been for the health insurance industry.

Much of the clamor has been over the ACA exchange plans. Yet in the overall picture that has been a very small part of what has really happened in the past decade. In fact, it has been such a small part that some of the largest insurers have pared back their involvement in the exchanges since they have been an insignificant contributor to their business successes.

So what has been the source of their success? The two government programs, Medicare and Medicaid, and the expansion and diversification of their industry.

The largest expansion as a result of ACA has been in the Medicaid program, and that has coincided with a massive shift into the private Medicaid managed care programs. The behavior of the Medicaid managed care stocks has demonstrated what a phenomenal business success this has been (even if it appears that this success has been made possible by the implementation of their business model that simply prevents their Medicaid patients from receiving much of the care that they should have). Since the private Medicaid managers have been successful in barely providing health care to huge numbers of Medicaid beneficiaries at a very low cost to the government, it its likely that this program is locked in place for the indeterminate future. The political process will be very resistant to any proposals that would increase spending on poor people – the low-income population that qualifies for Medicaid.

The success of the private Medicare Advantage plans has not been due to ACA but rather due to other programs that were set up in an effort to privatize Medicare. Again, Congress and the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have all nurtured this program by providing them with very generous funding (much due to administrative chicanery) while at the same time giving the insurers regulatory backup to pay for health care at rates considerably below the rates paid by standard commercial plans. With high volume, generous funding, and low costs, it is no wonder that these insurance companies have become darlings of Wall Street.

What should be very alarming to us is the success that these insurance companies have had in diversifying their businesses. They are no longer just the insurers and administrators, they have now become an integral part of the health care delivery system with their acquisition of physician practices, outpatient surgery centers, pharmacy benefit managers, data analytic services, and other vertical acquisitions. Profits from these expansions are not limited by the ACA regulatory caps, and if there is anything that the private insurers understand, that is how to make a buck.

So where is the money coming from that has created this phenomenal success for the private insurers? Well, a large amount is from the taxpayers through the Medicaid managed care and private Medicare Advantage plans – part of the silent costs of health care that the taxpayers do not realize they are already paying. Some is coming from a diversion of funds from the health care providers into the coffers of the insurers. Some is coming from the Wall Street customers who are paying excessive amounts for stock purchases plus the cost of churning in this protracted bull market. And some is from the excessive administrative services that the insurers keep selling us. You can probably think of more sources of their enrichment.

We’ve been saying for three decades that it is urgent that we change to a publicly funded and publicly administered, single payer, improved Medicare for All. Not only have we wasted funds on the excesses of our current dysfunctional system, but also far too many have gone without essential health services, and tens of millions have faced unnecessary financial hardship.

But what has snuck up on us is that the insurance industry has taken over. They have planted themselves in a position to capitalize on the Medicare for All movement. Medicare for All has now become the rallying cry for the Medicare public option. Just as the private Medicare Advantage plans are engulfing the traditional Medicare program, the insurance industry is positioned to be sure that the Medicare public option will be a Medicare Advantage public option, and they will do it with the support of our politicians, including many who profess to be progressive or liberal or whatever label assuages their guilt.

The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that 70 percent of Americans support Medicare for All, including half of Republicans. But, with the complicity of the neoliberals, the industry has latched onto the Medicare for All rhetoric and will use it to expand their business successes.

What can we do? Well if the public is really serious about wanting affordable health care for all, it will require massive community action – education, grassroots, coalitions, voter engagement – now! Otherwise, sit back and watch them implement Medicare Advantage for All. It’s almost here.

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