Medicare Advantage, the privatized alternative to the traditional federal insurance program for seniors, has been a boon to health insurers' bottom lines in recent years. That trend shows no signs of slowing in 2020, if UnitedHealth Group's projections are any indication.
David Wichmann, CEO of UnitedHealth, the parent company of the nation's largest health insurer UnitedHealthcare, said Wednesday that the latest Medicare Advantage open enrollment period was its "strongest ever."
The company expects to serve nearly 700,000 more individual Medicare Advantage members in 2020. Last year, it grew enrollment in the individual and group Advantage businesses by 325,000 to 5.3 million compared with 2018.
UnitedHealthcare executives said Wednesday they added 370,000 Advantage members during the open enrollment period that ended Dec. 7, which reflects growth of about 140% over the prior annual enrollment period. It will add the remainder of the 700,000 projected new members over the rest of the year.
"We finished the year encouraged by continued performance improvement in Medicaid, early market interest in our new innovative line of employer-sponsored benefit offerings and 2020 individual Medicare Advantage annual enrollment results, which were our strongest ever," Wichmann said.
Nationwide, enrollment in Medicare Advantage has grown significantly over the last decade, rising to roughly 24 million as of early December 2019, according to the latest CMS data. That's up from about 11 million a decade ago. Baby Boomers are aging into the Medicare program at a rapid clip and many of them are choosing Advantage plans. About a third of all Medicare seniors take the Medicare Advantage route.
Advantage plans usually offer extra benefits not included in traditional Medicare, such as dental coverage, gym memberships and eyeglasses. The Trump administration has increasingly allowed insurers more flexibility to provide new perks that don't have to do with clinical care, such as healthy home-delivered meals.
Unlike traditional Medicare, Advantage plans also include limits on how much a patient can spend out of pocket in a year. At the same time, they have narrower networks and require prior authorization for certain medical services while traditional Medicare generally offers a broader choice of doctors.
Given Medicare Advantage's rapid growth and support from the federal government, it's no wonder health insurers are clamoring for a piece of the lucrative market. More health insurers are offering Advantage plans in 2020, and patients have access to an average of four more plan options than last year for a total of 28 plans each, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Despite the increased competition, UnitedHealthcare still holds its title as the insurer with the most Medicare Advantage enrollment. Its growth in the senior business helped boost the UnitedHealthcare fourth-quarter 2019 revenue to $48.2 billion, up 4.4% over the same quarter a year ago.
UnitedHealthcare also grew commercial enrollment to 27.8 million members, an increase of 3.1%, but its Medicaid membership declined 8.5% to 5.9 million. Executives said they expect to see Medicaid performance improve in 2020. In total, UnitedHealthcare served 49.2 million members in 2019, essentially flat from the year before.
Optum, the health services arm of UnitedHealth Group, remains the fastest growing segment of the company, anchored by its care delivery arm. Optum posted revenue of $29.8 billion in the three months ended Dec. 31, up 8.1% year over year.
Across the entire company, UnitedHealth recorded consolidated revenue of $60.9 billion in the fourth quarter, an increase of 4.3%, and net income of $3.7 billion, up 15.9%. For the full year, the company reported $242.2 billion in revenue, an increase of 7%, and $14.2 billion in net income, an increase of 15%.