- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The nation’s largest insurer said Tuesday it still might withdraw from the Obamacare marketplace by 2017, citing losses on the law’s Web-based exchanges despite a stronger-than-expected earnings report buoyed by its Optum division and other lines of business.

The UnitedHealth group told investors that it suffered $720 million in losses from its plans on the individual-market exchanges in 2015, including $245 million in the fourth quarter.

The Minnetonka, Minnesota-based insurer shocked the health insurance industry in November when it said it planned to scale back its offerings on the marketplace set up by the Affordable Care Act, citing a sicker-than-expected customer base.

It doubled down on that threat Tuesday, even as other major insurers say they’re willing to stick it out on the exchanges, where customers can shop for plans and qualify for government subsidies that make their monthly bills more affordable.

“By mid-2016 we will determine to what extent, if any, we will continue to offer products in the exchange market in 2017,” UnitedHealth Group President and Chief Financial Officer David S. Wichmann said in the company’s 2015 fourth-quarter earnings call.

The company said it ended 2015 with about 500,000 customers from the Obamacare exchanges — a number that has grown to about 700,000, as open enrollment extended into mid-January.

It expects that number to spike to just shy of 800,000 by the end of the signup season on Jan. 31, and then recede as people drop out of the market and they decline to pursue additional customers.

“We are not pursuing membership growth, and have taken a comprehensive set of actions to contain membership and sharpen performance over the balance of 2016,” Mr. Wichmann said.

For its part, the Health and Human Services Department reiterated what it said in November — that major insurers such as Aetna and Anthem are still committed to the program, so “statements from one issuer are not reflective of the marketplace’s overall strength going forward.”

“More Americans are getting covered, and we’re confident this positive trend will continue,” HHS spokesman Benjamin Wakana said.

The administration said Tuesday it is buying more TV advertising in metropolitan areas with a large number of uninsured residents, while HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and HealthCare.gov CEO Kevin Counihan will whip up enrollment in trips to the Carolinas, Florida, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri.

“We are squarely focused on what more we can do to reach more people with this important information before time runs out,” CMS spokeswoman Lori Lodes said in a written update for reporters. “We’re doubling down in these final days to do everything we can to make sure each uninsured American understands their options for affordable coverage at HealthCare.gov.”

The administration reminded customers that they face a tax penalty of $695 or 2.5 percent of income above the filing threshold— whichever is higher — for staying uncovered in 2016.

Officials say they will not extend open enrollment for people who miss the cutoff, meaning someone would need to get married or face some other type of significant life change to sign up on an exchange before open enrollment starts again.

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