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New reports detail UnitedHealth's latest acquisitions under shady pretenses

Two newly published investigative reports, by the intrepid reporters at STAT News and The American Prospect, pull the curtains back a little more on the astonishing number of recent acquisitions UnitedHealth has made as it moves deeper and deeper into health care delivery, enabling it to grab ever-increasing chunks of our premium and tax dollars to reward its shareholders. 

As STAT’s Bob Herman points out this morning, United has been on a clinic-buying spree in recent months, targeting areas of the country where it has significant enrollment in its Medicare Advantage plans. That’s a strategic move that allows the company to steer more seniors to facilities it owns, boosting revenues it gets from the government and padding its bottom line. 

The bigger a company gets, the less it has to disclose about the acquisitions it makes in any easily obtainable way. That’s because publicly-traded companies are only required to immediately inform investors of individual deals that are “material to earnings.”

A material amount, as Investopedia explains, “can signify any sum or figure worth mentioning, as in account balances, financial statements, shareholder reports, or conference calls. If something is not a material amount, it is considered too insignificant or trivial to mention.”

UnitedHealth’s long string of acquisitions in recent years has catapulted the company to the #5 spot on the Fortune 500 list of American companies, based on revenue. Only Walmart, Exxon Mobile, Amazon and Apple are bigger. That rapid growth means that fewer and fewer of UnitedHealth’s acquisitions reach the threshold of requiring prominent disclosure to shareholders.

It was only through a close review of UnitedHealth’s latest annual report to investors and other financial documents that STAT was able to see what the company hides from most of us. As Herman noted:

UnitedHealth Group is so big that it doesn’t have to publicly announce a vast majority of its acquisitions. But a STAT analysis of company financial documents shows the health care conglomerate quietly acquired dozens of outpatient facilities in 2023, with a particular focus on surgery centers. And it’s not adding random surgery centers, either. There seems to be an explicit strategy: Many of UnitedHealth’s new centers sit in geographic areas where the company is the biggest Medicare Advantage player, based on the latest insurance market share data. That overlap reinforces how UnitedHealth is looking to funnel more of its insurance members toward providers that it owns, with the overarching goal of capturing more profit.

As an example, STAT said it stumbled upon an entry–”buried within UnitedHealth’s annual report”–that revealed the company’s previously undisclosed December acquisition of National Cardiovascular Partners, which operates 21 cardiac cath and vascular labs. Not coincidentally, NCP’s facilities are “in places like Phoenix and large metro areas in Texas where UnitedHealth has the biggest MA market share.”

Separately, at The American Prospect, reporter Maureen Tkacik, reported yesterday how UnitedHealth is exploiting the crisis created for physician groups and hospitals when one of its other recently acquired companies, Change Healthcare, was hacked last month. 

Tkacik wrote that last Thursday, UnitedHealthcare applied for an emergency exemption that would fast-track its takeover of a medical practice in Corvallis, Oregon, which is facing the prospect of closing its doors because of the financial crunch caused by the hack. As Tkacik explained, the hack interrupted the flow of information from Change Healthcare’s claims processing systems that enables physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers to get paid. 

Perversely, UnitedHealth is telling Oregon regulators that the best solution is to allow the company’s proposed acquisition of the medical practice to go forward. 

Tkacik reported that: 

Although the specific reason for the exemption request is redacted from the publicly posted version of the application, a clinic insider says the “emergency” is the same one that has plunged thousands of other health providers across the nation into a terrifying cash crunch… The situation underscores the perverse state of affairs in which UnitedHealth, which comprises some 2,642 separate companies that collectively raked in $371.6 billion last year, has arguably profited from the desperation that the hacking of its Change computer systems in late February has inflicted upon the health care system. An estimated half of all health care transactions are processed or somehow otherwise touched by Change, a rollup of dozens of health care technology firms that provide 137 software applications that have been affected by the outage. 

Tkacid added that “Every dollar in revenue that has disappeared from hospitals, medical practices, and pharmacies in the aftermath of the outage corresponds to an extra dollar sitting in the coffers of the nation’s health insurers, so UnitedHealth, which pays out roughly $662 million in medical claims each day, is presumably sitting on a mountain of unexpected cash.” 

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