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UnitedHealth expanding presence in patient care business

Insurer's Optum unit now nation's largest independent urgent care provider

UnitedHealth Group is expanding its reach in the healthcare industry by getting into the patient care business, aiming to cut healthcare costs. Through its Optum unit, the largest insurer in the country has also become the biggest independent provider of urgent care, reported the Star-Tribune.

Optum began expanding into patient care about four years ago when it reached agreements to handle nonclinical operations at some Californian large physician groups, the article said. The company also operates a house call program featuring nurses who visit patients in their homes. Optum recently acquired a West Virginia company with about 140 urgent care clinics across the country.

The main driver for expanding into patient care is that partnering with doctors will help create a better overall healthcare system, OptumCare Executive Vice President Jack Larsen told the Star-Tribune.

He added that the roughly 1,000 doctors who work for Optum have certain information technology tools that help them guide patients to the best care, which helps avoid wasteful spending.

The goal of working with providers is "the avoidance of the unnecessary, so we can fund the necessary," Larsen said. "When you're coordinated, things work out better in terms of cost, quality and outcomes."

Not everyone supports UnitedHealth's move into patient care. "It will trim down the ability of the practitioner to make choices in the best interest of the patient," Mike Hatch, Minnesota's former attorney general, told the Star-Tribune. "Insurers are not there to spend more money--they're there to try and conserve."

That said, payer-provider partnerships have achieved success. For example, ElevateHealth, a nonprofit partnership established last year by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and two leading health systems in New Hampshire, has lowered costs by as much as 20 percent, FierceHealthPayer previously reported.

To learn more:
- read the Star-Tribune article

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