Witty: Despite Optum Care's massive growth, it's still in 'early innings'

Optum has invested heavily in building out its provider enterprise. But executives at UnitedHealth Group say it's still early days for the endeavor.

For one, the company is still growing the geographic reach of Optum Care, CEO Andrew Witty said during an event hosted by Bernstein on Thursday. In addition, its reach in the markets it serves may be wider than others; for some, it has a slew of different avenues for patients to seek care and in others just one, he said.

"I think we're in the very early innings of this whole agenda for us," Witty said.

Optum Care will likely serve just under 3 million members in capitated payment arrangements by the end of this year, he said. This also represents an area for future growth, as it's just a fraction of both Optum Care's patient pool and UnitedHealthcare's membership.

John Rex, executive vice president and chief financial officer, said that the company's acquisition focus has evolved based on what care modalities are needed most to serve the member and facilitate value-based care. It began with an emphasis on primary care and then dug deeper into multispecialty practices, behavioral health, home health and ambulatory care.

Just this year, Optum has acquired multiple providers including Houston-based Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. That acquisition, said UHG Chief Operating Officer Dirk McMahon, will be felt across Optum Care as it comes with significant value-based care expertise.

One of the things that made the deal "particularly attractive" was that Kelsey-Seybold was already positioned strongly to take on risk in the commercial space, which is a harder sell than in Medicare Advantage, he said.

Bringing Kelsey-Seybold into the fold "taught us some things in short order," McMahon said.

Incorporating that expertise into Optum Care is critical as UnitedHealth's provider arm is "fiercely multi-payer," with typically less than 20% of lives cared for in the system covered by UnitedHealthcare, Witty said. Finding ways to drive value-based relationships with UnitedHealthcare can translate to Optum Care's relationship with other insurers.

While deals like the Kelsey-Seybold buy are what make the headlines, a key part of making value-based care work is the investment in existing clinics to help them prepare for the switch, Witty said. Optum invests "a ton in the year or two before a clinic goes into risk acquisition" to ensure they're ready, he said.

"As long as you take it seriously and you put the time in, you can really make this work," Witty said. "But if you're a little cavalier around it, you can stub your toe pretty badly."