How UnitedHealth Group is aiming to harness the dual capabilities of its health plan, Optum

The outside of UnitedHealth Group's headquarters
UnitedHealth Group released its first-quarter earnings report on Thursday morning. (UnitedHealth Group)

One of UnitedHealth Group's key strategic goals is to more strongly harness the combined capabilities of its UnitedHealthcare and Optum business arms, executives at the healthcare giant said Thursday.

On the company's earnings call Thursday morning, CEO Andrew Witty said that the two subsidiaries are "distinct and complementary organizations" where there is significant opportunity to align their work.

"We remain restless to innovate, evolve and further integrate our offerings to serve more people more effectively, both directly and with our many external partners throughout the healthcare environment," Witty said.

An example of this at work, he said, is OptumCare's work with Medicare Advantage patients in value-based arrangements. Witty said patients treated in such arrangements spend one-third fewer days in the hospital on average compared to traditional Medicare.

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In addition, these patients spent 40% less time in skilled nursing facilities and see lower costs for their care, Witty said.

OptumCare also recently opened a new facility in Riverside County, California that offers a number of integrated primary care services and a community center. Witty said the clinic is designed to target Medicare, Medicaid and individual market plan members.

Services available onsite include pharmacy, annual wellness checks, chronic care management and labs and imaging, Witty said. The adjacent community center offers a full-service gym and meeting rooms for events such as nutrition classes.

"We see Optum and our payer partners as uniquely positioned to be able to offer these types of impactful venues," he said.

UnitedHealth Group posted $4.9 billion in profit for the first quarter of 2021, up from $3.4 billion in the prior-year quarter.

Revenues were also up by 9% compared to the first quarter of 2020, according to the company's earnings report released Thursday, hitting $70.2 billion. Revenues in the first quarter of 2020 were $64.4 billion.

The results topped Zacks Investment Research projections for both earnings and revenue.

UnitedHealth Group said it saw "balanced" growth across its UnitedHealthcare and Optum business segments.

“The unique combined capabilities of Optum and UnitedHealthcare and the unwavering commitment of our people continue to help advance the way care is delivered, improving results for those we serve and shareholders,” said Witty in a statement.

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In the first quarter, UnitedHealthcare added more than 1 million customers, according to the report. Revenues grew by 7.9% year over year, reaching $55.1 billion compared to $51.1 billion in the first quarter of 2020.

UnitedHealth said growth was led by its community and senior programs. Medicare Advantage has been a key expansion target for many big-name insurers, including UHC.

Optum recorded another quarter of double-digit revenue growth, hitting $36.4 billion compared to $32.8 billion in the prior-year quarter, or growth of 10.8%.

The company's OptumHealth segment continues to be a significant area of growth, according to the earnings report, with revenue per customer served up 31% in the first quarter. OptumHealth served 99 million customers in the first quarter, an increase of 3 million from the first quarter of 2020.

Due to the first-quarter results, UnitedHealth Group is raising its earnings guidance for the year to between $18.10 and $18.60 per share, with $1.80 in net unfavorable impact possible due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic.