Why UnitedHealth sees combined powers of its health plan, Optum as a competitive advantage

The outside of UnitedHealth Group's headquarters
UnitedHealth Group executives outlined this week why the company is focusing on finding synergies between UnitedHealthcare and Optum. (UnitedHealth Group)

Finding synergies between Optum and UnitedHealthcare's capabilities is a key strategic focus at UnitedHealth Group, executives said this week.

UHG CEO Andrew Witty said during the healthcare giant's session at the BofA Securities Healthcare Conference on Tuesday that he, in particular, sees significant "untapped potential" in Optum's business lines.

Witty said that the company has doubled down on these efforts in the past several months, with Chief Operating Officer Dirk McMahon playing a leading role in identifying areas where the two arms of the company can play together more effectively.

"There is tremendous opportunity to build," Witty said. "That's an area where we think we can do more."

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Witty's comments echo similar statements made during UnitedHealth Group's first-quarter earnings call, where he called Optum and UnitedHealthcare "distinct and complementary organizations."

But finding these synergies isn't only about enhancing the company's performance internally, he said. In learning new ways for UnitedHealthcare and Optum to play together, UHG can harness that in its relationships with other payers and providers in the industry.

Optum's diversity and scale—it is a massive pharmacy benefit manager, a data and analytics firm and a large healthcare provider all-in-one—sets it up as a competitive force across a number of healthcare industry markets.

"Nobody's had anything like Optum before in the U.S. healthcare system," Witty said.

UnitedHealth Group officials see particular promise in harnessing the strengths of both business lines in two areas: value-based care and technology.

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OptumCare's providers are at different stages in their journey toward value-based models and contracts, Witty said, and working with the UnitedHealthcare team can help those who are early on in the process navigate it more effectively.

And once they're more engaged with these models, they can take those lessons to their interactions with other payers who cover OptumCare patients, he said. Optum's providers treat patients from about 90 insurers, so enhancing their value-based care capabilities goes beyond partnering with UnitedHealthcare specifically, he said.

"It's relatively easy to put together a quick contract," he said. "It's much harder to do a multi-decade journey where you really drive change."

Optum's analytics arm, OptumInsights, is also primed to expand its outward relationships, Witty said. The company sees significant potential, for example, in combining its capabilities with existing UnitedHealthcare platforms for enhanced shared decision-making at the point of care, McMahon said.

UHG also sees promise in using technology to create a more cohesive patient experience across its OptumCare portfolio, standardizing portals and other tools they use to interact with their providers, McMahon said.

UnitedHealth Group is undertaking this effort as the market heats up for tech as well as for insurers growing their stake in the provider world. Witty said the company welcomes this competition, as complacency prevents growth.

"If you’re not testing against that reality of the marketplace, I think that pathway takes you down a road of losing your competitive edge eventually," Witty said.