Stock prices of major insurers dipped slightly after two nights of debates by the 20 Democratic presidential candidates where despite the buzz around Medicare for All the rhetoric about health insurance remained mostly benign.
UnitedHealth Group, which also just announced some leadership changes, saw a decline of about 2.4% Friday morning. Anthem was down nearly 2%. Humana fell by about 1%, and Centene, WellCare Health Plans, Molina Healthcare and Cigna saw small dips of less than 1%. The broader market and hospital stocks were trading slightly up on Friday.
Despite the momentum among Democratic progressives for Medicare for All, or single payer, only two candidates each night raised their hand when asked whether they supported eliminating private health insurance. These were New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) the first night, and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) on the second night.
This position is a familiar stance for Sanders and Harris modified her assertion Friday morning during an interview with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" when she said she interpreted the question as whether she would "give up private insurance" for Medicare for All.
At one point former Vice President Joe Biden suggested jailing insurance executives, but he appeared to be referring to pharmaceutical executives as he then referred to "misleading advertising" on opioids and paying doctors to prescribe them.
Other candidates such as Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are pushing for a public option — an idea that has far more momentum among the Democratic contenders.
One potential volume boon for insurers was signaled by all 10 candidates who debated Thursday night supporting extending coverage to undocumented immigrants, or roughly 10 million to 11 million people. Ipsita Smolinski, managing director of the Capitol Street consulting firm, highlighted this position as "a striking change from the candidates of four years ago versus now."
"Not that any of this could happen overnight, but that was an interesting pivot," Smolinski said.
The candidates barely addressed an issue that Congress is trying to deal with this summer through legislation: the high costs of healthcare.
When they did touch on the issue, it was largely to decry the profits of the healthcare industry.
Warren claimed that last year insurers "sucked $23 billion in profits out of the healthcare system" and that the money went to executives and lobbyists. This was a reference to the 2018 report by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that showed insurers netted $23.4 billion, up from $16.1 billion the prior year.
Warren, as well as Sanders, voted against the Senate health committee's legislation this week that takes aim at healthcare costs. They were the only Democrats on the panel to do so.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Klobuchar both talked about letting Medicare negotiate prices with drug companies, although pharmaceutical prices — another hot topic in Washington — got little airtime during the debates.