2021 outlook grows murky for insurers as COVID-19 surges

·2 min read

Surging COVID-19 cases are blurring the view for health insurers of how 2021 will play out.

Medicare Advantage coverage specialist Humana said Wednesday that it was maintaining its 2021 earnings forecast, citing “heightened uncertainty” about the ongoing pandemic.

That came a day after another insurer, Centene, also maintained its forecast for the year instead of raising it like rivals UnitedHealth Group and Anthem Inc. when they reported second-quarter results earlier this month.

The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the United States has jumped from about 24,000 shortly before UnitedHealth reported earnings on July 15 to more than 61,000 Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

COVID-19 cases had been falling for weeks, while insurers saw care use return to more normal levels as patients came back to surgery centers and doctor’s offices for care not related to the coronavirus. But a more contagious variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 has started to change that in the past week or so, spreading largely among people who have not received COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s not business as usual as everybody had hoped,” Centene CEO Michael Neidorff told analysts on Tuesday, noting that the insurer has shown in the past that it can manage through “COVID-type issues.”

Centene Corp. covers or manages coverage for about 25 million people. Neidorff said about half of their customers are vaccinated.

Nationally, 60% of the adult U.S. population is fully vaccinated while 69% have had at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health insurers reaped huge profits early in the pandemic as patients cancelled or put off medical care and stayed home to avoid being exposed to the virus. That break in claims was countered a bit by increased costs for COVID-19 testing and treatment.

Humana executives told analysts Wednesday that they’ve started seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases in the last couple of weeks. It was too early to say whether that will be balanced again by a drop in care not related to the virus.

Humana CEO Bruce Broussard said 2021 is poised to be a “year of COVID-19 transition,” with next year returning more to normal.

Shares of several health insurers fell Wednesday in midday trading, led by a 6% drop from Humana Inc., which also reported better-than-expected second quarter earnings. Broader indexes were mixed.

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Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter: @thpmurphy

Tom Murphy, The Associated Press

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