The CEO of industry giant UnitedHealth Group weighed in on Medicare for All proposals Tuesday, saying that plans being debated by Democrats would harm the nation’s health care system if enacted.
"The wholesale disruption of American health care being discussed in some of these proposals would surely jeopardize the relationship people have with their doctors, destabilize the nation’s health system, and limit the ability of clinicians to practice medicine at their best," CEO David Wichmann said on an earnings call. "And the inherent cost burden would surely have a severe impact on the economy and jobs — all without fundamentally increasing access to care," he added.
A major player: UnitedHealth is the largest health insurer in the U.S., covering almost 50 million people – nearly as large as Medicare itself, Bloomberg’s Drew Armstrong and John Tozzi pointed out.
A lot at stake: UnitedHealth recorded revenues of $226 billion last year, and the company’s stock has risen sharply over the last 10 years. Shares were down Tuesday, however, despite positive earnings news, with analysts citing “investor jitters” over Medicare for All. MarketWatch’s Tomi Kilgore said that investors were “reacting to chatter about changes in the regulatory landscape” for health care – chatter that Wichmann was trying to address, although his approach may have backfired.
Wichmann and his predecessor, Stephen J. Hemsley, have been among the highest paid health care executives in the country. Wichmann’s total compensation was $17.4 million in 2017, while Hemsley reportedly earned $279 million between 2010 and 2016.
The industry pushes back: Until now, health care executives have remained quiet amid the growing debate over universal health care among Democratic presidential candidates, but a Washington Post story last week said that UnitedHealth has been working to undermine Medicare for All behind the scenes. Steve Nelson, CEO of UnitedHealthcare, a division of United Health Group, said “we’ve done a lot more than you would think” on the issue while seeking to “tread lightly” to avoid the political spotlight.
Nelson, who earned $7.5 million in 2017, ended up very much in the spotlight in the wake of the Post article, however, with presidential candidate and leading Medicare-for-All proponent Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeting last week, “Our message to Steve Nelson and UnitedHealthcare is simple: When we are in the White House your greed is going to end. We will end the disgrace of millions of people being denied health care while a single company earns $226 billion and its CEO makes $7.5 million in compensation.”
Wichmann’s public comments on the issue this week “represent an escalation” in the political struggle, The Hill’s Nathaniel Weixel said, in a battle that so far has been fought largely by advocacy groups and lobbyists.
A different path? Wichmann said he doesn’t oppose the idea of universal health coverage but wants to maintain a role for private insurers. “The path forward is to achieve universal coverage, and it can be substantially reached through existing public and private platforms," Wichmann said.