UnitedHealth gets 'aggressive' about Optum expansion

UnitedHealth Group's healthcare services arm, Optum, continues to be the company's driving force for growth, executives said this week--and they plan to maintain that momentum by expanding further into target markets.

United expects Optum's operating margins to grow more than 30 percent in 2016, and it estimates Optum will contribute 42 percent or more of the company's enterprise-wide operating earnings this year, according to executives' remarks in a first-quarter earnings call.

For pharmacy services subsidiary OptumRx, first-quarter revenues grew 72 percent year-over-year to $14.3 billion. The company is also "enthusiastic about the potential" of its recently announced partnership with retail chain Walgreens, according to Optum CEO Larry Renfro.

"Pharmacy care services is a high priority area for us," he said. The company's acquisition of pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) Catamaran, he added, was a significant scale-up for OptumRx, which has gone from processing 350 million prescriptions a year in 2012 to more than 1 billion annually.

United also recently acquired workers compensation PBM Helios.

Optum is planning to expand ambitiously into the realm of retail care clinics, as well, Renfro said. The OptumCare division "might try to be a little more aggressive" than its earlier-stated target of opening 25 to 30 clinic locations a year, he said. "We're trying to be in 75 markets and we're balancing how we do that through acquisitions, through startups and so forth."

United subsidiary Harken Health is also making inroads in the patient-care business. Through a partnership with Iora Health, the company blends an insurance plan with a value-based care model that has drawn attention for offering free primary care visits at its clinics.

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