UnitedHealth Group, both the nation’s largest health insurer and largest employer of physicians, just announced plans to continue to rapidly grow the number of physicians in its Optum division.
This week CEO Dave Wichmann told investors in the company’s fourth quarter earnings call that Optum entered 2021 with over 50,000 employed or affiliated physicians, and expects to add at least 10,000 more across the year.(For context,HCA Healthcare, the largest for-profit US health system, employs or affiliates with roughly 46,000 physicians, and Kaiser Permanente employs about 23,300.) Optum is already making progress toward its ambitious goal with the announcement last week that the company is in talks to acquire Atrius Health, a 715-physician practice in the Boston area.
As was the case with other health plans, United’s health insurance business took an expected hit last quarter due to increased costs from COVID testing and treatment, combined with rebounding healthcare utilization. Optum, however, saw revenue up over 20 percent, which drove much of the company’s overall fourth quarter growth.
Expect United, and other large insurers, flush with record profits from last year, to continue to expand their portfolio of care, digital and analytics assets(see also Optum’s recently announced plan to acquire Change Healthcare for $13B) as they looks to grow integrated insurance and care delivery offerings.
It’s part of what we expect to be a 2021 “land grab” for strategic advantage in healthcare, as providers, health plans, and disruptors look to create comprehensive platforms to secure long-term consumer loyalty.
Top executives at some of the biggest commercial insurers outlined their shifting strategies and what markets are growth opportunities in light of the recession at Morgan Stanley’s annual conference.
Top executives at some of the biggest commercial insurers provided a peak behind their curtains at Morgan Stanley’s annual investor conference this week, discussing the pace of utilization recovery and how they’re approaching rate setting and risk going into next year
Though there’s significant uncertainty around the future of the insurance industry, many remarks can be summed up in a line from Cigna CEO David Cordani: “We feel bullish on 2021.”
And despite the major role of government in regulating healthcare, most officials seemed agnostic on the presidential election looming in less than two months.
Payers are reporting skyrocketing profits amid the COVID-19 pandemic as patients deferred care in droves in the second quarter, sparking a congressional investigation into business practices. Use of healthcare services continues to recover from a nadir in March and April, and that recovery has continued into the third quarter, payer executives said. But the pace has differed by segment.
At the start of the pandemic, Humana saw beneficiary use drop to about 30% of pre-COVID-19 levels until mid-May, when it slowly started to tick back up. The Louisville, Kentucky-based insurer’s utilization is now still “a little below par,” but well above that depression and meeting internal expectations, CEO Bruce Broussard said.
CVS Health-owned Aetna has seen its commercial business come back faster than Medicare, CFO Eva Boratto said. Primary care and labs have seen a quicker rebound, but it’s been slower in inpatient and ambulatory.
Centene CEO Michael Neidorff predicts utilization will be between 65% to 80% of normal by the end of the year, but remains cautious due to the shifting nature of the pandemic, and how it could coincide with a potentially nasty flu season.
“We don’t know what other peaks we’re going to see,” Neidorff said.
2021 rate setting, strategic pivots
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 is also shaping major payer’s go-to-market approaches and how they’re thinking about 2021 bids.
Humana, for example, studied both historical data prior to COVID-19 and did scenario planning around what the pandemic could do to factors like utilization, testing and treatment if it continued throughout the year. Eventually, the payer decided to base bid assumptions off trending historical information forward, according to Broussard.
“We were very oriented to pricing that was more conservative as we thought about the approach,” he said.
It appears Centene, contrastingly, is using 2020 data to risk score. When asked how the payer is approaching rate setting, Neidorff said: “We’re dealing with this year. And we’re saying that any concessions this year should not necessarily carry into next year, which is an entirely different year.”
Employers and plans nationwide are struggling with this issue. Only about 60% of employers are using 2020 claims to set rates for next year, while another 26% are calculating expected medical costs based on data from 2019, and 9% are using data from the first two months of 2020 alone, according to Credit Suisse.
The pandemic has also shifted insurers’ broader strategic priorities in 2021 and beyond, especially by hammering home the need for diversified revenue streams to keep afloat, top execs said.
“We’re in 37 states. If you have a stock that’s not performing well in your portfolio, you probably have some that are offsetting it,” Centene’s Neidorff said.
Humana has been investing in telesales, at-home and in-community offerings and digital capabilities, with an eye for growth. Broussard said Humana’s customers have been mostreactive to an omnichannel approach to care delivery.
For example, the payer is seeing home as an increasingly valid path for care a little more acute in service than in the past. As a result, Humana plans to continue investing in areas that dovetail with that trend, and those with biggest impact on downstream healthcare costs, including primary care, social determinants of health, behavioral health and pharmacy.
CVS has also accelerated development of its virtual care offering, eClinic, as a result of the pandemic and relaxed federal regulations. Visits are up 40% since the end of June, CEO Larry Merlo said, noting he believes the future of healthcare delivery is at the intersection between digital and physical.
Because of the pandemic, “we are seeing an accelerated shift to this multichannel, integrated approach,” Merlo said. “We did change some of our priorities, and accelerate some things that may have been further down the road.”
CVS is continuing to convert existing stores to health- and wellness-focused locations, called HealthHUBs, which devote a fifth of floor space to healthcare products and services. Currently, the Rhode Island-based giant has 275 HUBs up and running, despite pausing conversions for a time in March.
Cigna is also looking to drive revenue by moving beyond a payer’s traditional wheelhouse. On Wednesday, the insurer announced it was rebranding its health services division as Evernorth, in a next step for the Cigna-Express Scripts megamerger completed almost two years ago.
For its part, Centene is introducing more value-based contracts in 2021, after seeing providers it contracts with in alternative payment models are reporting stronger cash flow and patient relationships amid COVID-19 than those in fee-for-service relationships.
Going into next year, the payer is also focused on margin expansion, working with states to set rates and federal lobbying for friendly policies like an increased Medicaid match rate, Neidorff said.
The COVID-19 recession booted millions of Americans off employer-sponsored insurance, though the full scope of the insurance crisis isn’t yet clear. Cigna’s Cordani noted the disenrollment in the first half of the year in its commercial population was lower than expected, helped by the fact the payer is less active in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic like travel and leisure.
But disenrollment could still snowball in the second half of 2020. As a result, a number of major commercial payers are building out offerings in two coverage backstops in the market: Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act exchanges.
Broussard said Humana sees ample opportunity in Medicaid — including the dually eligible — but wants to be more surgical in expansion moving forward, especially as states look for a more contemporary delivery of services and engagement with clinical programs. Humana is going to look for tuck-in acquisitions.
“Is there a way to enter the market in a small way, and leverage our capabilities and grow from that?,” Broussard said.
Cordani agreed that budget-strapped states are looking for new ways to lower costs, but said “Medicaid has always been a lower priority growth platform” for Cigna. Instead, the insurer sees the safety net program as an opportunity for Evernorth in the near term, more than its government business.
Of the 1.1 million new members Centene added from March through August, the majority were in Medicaid, but a significant portion were in the ACA exchanges, Neidorff said. Capitalizing on that momentum, Centene — already the largest payer in the exchanges — is adding 2 new states to its footprint for 2021. “I think we’ll grow in marketplace, given the level of people and the subsidies they get,” Neidorff said. “I see it as a positive going forward.”
Humana, however, is leery on entering the exchange market, given political uncertainty around the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to its top exec.
“The exchange market has stabilized in a lot of different ways, but still has elements where it tends to be a sicker, more transient population,” Broussard said. “We’d rather not be in the situation where we go in and have to pull out because of the political realm.”
Payers also continue to forecast strong growth in Medicare Advantage. Currently, about 34% of Medicare beneficiaries are in the privately run Medicare plans. It’s a popular program: The Congressional Budget Office predicts MA’s share of the overall Medicare population will swell to 47% by 2029.
CVS is currently on track for mid-single-digit growth next year, and sees Aetna’s continued growth in MA as one of the building blocks to continued earnings power, Boratto said.
Similarly, Cigna is well on track to meeting its goal of 10% to 15% annual organic growth in MA, Cordani said. Historically, Cigna has only been present in about 18% to 19% of the addressable government market, but is trying to eventually expand to 50%.
Shrugging off election
Unlike years past when some payers worried of Democratic plans for Medicare and other aspects of insurance, most executives seemed to shrugged off the coming presidential election.
President Donald Trump has made undermining the ACA one of the chief goals of his first term, while Democrat nominee former Vice President Joe Biden’s healthcare plan revolves around shoring up the decade-old law, enacting a public option and lowering Medicare’s age of eligibility.
But executives noted Trump’s tenure hasn’t necessarily been bad for them, and having Biden at the helm could provide some opportunity for savvy operators.
Humana could be particularly at risk going into a period of political uncertainty. The payer has a smaller portfolio and fewer assets than some of its bigger peers, Ricky Goldwasser, managing director at Morgan Stanley, said.
But Broussard said regardless of whether the inhabitant of the White House is blue or red, they’ll likely support value-based payment models — a key tenet of its strategy. Additionally, the seemingly-threatening Medicare buy-in option is “very similar to MA,” Broussard said. “We’d see that as the opportunity to expand our ability to bring our capabilities to maybe a younger population, but with a lot of the same elements.”
Some industry experts see the public option, which has bipartisan support among voters, as a potential benefit for companies with leading market share in MA, like UnitedHealth, Humana and Aetna.
“We’ve had public options and done well in public options. So history says that’s fine,” Centene’s Neidorff said. “I think Biden would not be a threat, but an opportunity. I think a Trump re-election would just be more of what we’ve seen. And we’ve done OK with that.”
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released its weekly jobless claims report at 8:30 a.m. ET Thursday. Here were the main metrics from the report, compared to Bloomberg estimates:
Initial jobless claims, week ended Sept. 19: 870,000 vs. 840,000 expected, and 866,000 during the prior week
Continuing claims, week ended Sept. 12: 12.580 million vs. 12.275 million expected, and 12.747 million during the prior week
At 870,000, Thursday’s figure represented the fourth consecutive week that new jobless claims came in below the psychologically important 1 million level, but was still high on a historical basis. Nevertheless, the labor market has made strides in recovering from the pandemic-era spike high of nearly 7 million weekly new claims seen in late March.
“While jobless claims under a million for four straight weeks could be considered a positive, we’re staring down a pretty stagnant labor market,” Mike Loewengart, managing director of investment strategy for E-Trade Financial Corporation, said in an email Thursday. “This has been a slow roll to recovery and with no signs of additional stimulus from Washington, jobless Americans will likely continue to exist in limbo. Further, a shaky labor market translates into a skittish consumer, and in the face of a pandemic that seemingly won’t go away without a vaccine, the outlook for the economy certainly comes into question.”
On an unadjusted basis, initial jobless claims rose by a greater margin, or about 28,500, from the previous week to about 824,500. The seasonally adjusted level of new claims rose by 4,000 week on week.
By state, unadjusted claims in California – where joblessness due to the pandemic has compounded with labor market stress due to wildfires – were again the highest in the country at more than 230,000, for an increase of about 4,400 week-over-week. Georgia, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts also reported significant increases in new claims relative to the rest of the country. Most states reported at least increases in new claims last week.
Continuing claims have also trended lower after a peak of nearly 25 million in May, and fell for a second straight week in this week’s report. But these claims, which capture the total number of individuals still receiving unemployment insurance, have not broken below the 12 million mark since before the pandemic took hold of the labor market in mid-March.
Consistently high numbers of individuals have been filing for, and receiving, jobless benefits from regular state programs, and those newly created during the pandemic. The number of individuals claiming benefits in all programs for the week ended September 5 – the latest reported week – fell for the first time following three straight weeks of increases to 26.04 million, from the nearly 29.8 million reported during the prior week.
Of that total, more than 11.5 million comprised individuals receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which is aimed at self-employed and gig workers who don’t qualify for regular unemployment compensation but have still been impacted by the pandemic.
One of the major downside risks to further improvement in the labor market has been concern that Congress may not soon pass another round of fiscal stimulus aimed at keeping individuals on payrolls during the pandemic. Economists have already said that the end of the last round of augmented federal unemployment benefits in late July has weighed on improvements in joblessness.
“The current picture suggests that growth has slowed sharply in the past three months, and that the labor market is stalling again in the face of rising infections and the sudden ending of federal government support to unemployed people,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist for Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in a note Wednesday.
The need for more fiscal stimulus to encourage the economy’s ongoing recovery has become a key talking point of policymakers including Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and his colleagues at the central bank. In congressional testimony Tuesday and Wednesday, the Fed leader said further fiscal stimulus is “unequaled” by any other form of support that could be unleashed, with the central bank’s lending facilities having gone largely untouched by Main Street.
“The concept of the [congressionally authorized] Paycheck Protection Program was helpful because for many of those kinds of businesses – those businesses that don’t have cash reserves – the ability to get a forgivable loan if they stay open, if they keep people employed, was sound, and did give them the prospect of staying in business,” Joseph Minarik, The Conference Board chief policy economist and former Office of Management and Budget chief economist, told Yahoo Finance. “The notion that you have businesses that have been weak over the last few months and now have simply had to shut their doors, that’s a real problem, and it is not necessity going to be solved with a loan.”
For-profit hospitals are expected to see a financial decline over the next 12 to 18 months as federal relief funds that shored up revenue losses due to COVID-19 start to wane, a recent analysis from Moody’s said.
The analysis, released Monday, finds that cost management is going to be challenging for hospital systems as more surgical procedures are expected to migrate away from the hospital and people lose higher-paying commercial plans and go to lower-paying government programs such as Medicaid.
“The number of surgical procedures done outside of the hospital setting will continue to increase, which will weaken hospital earnings, particularly for companies that lack sizeable outpatient service lines (including ambulatory surgery centers),” the analysis said.
A $175 billion provider relief fund passed by Congress as part of the CARES Act helped keep hospital systems afloat in March and April as volumes plummeted due to the cancellation of elective procedures and reticence among patients to go to the hospitals.
Some for-profit systems such as HCA and Tenet pointed to relief funding to help generate profits in the second quarter of the year. The benefits are likely to dwindle as Congress has stalled over talks on replenishing the fund.
“Hospitals will continue to recognize grant aid as earnings in Q3 2020, but this tailwind will significantly moderate after that,” Moody’s said.
Cost cutting challenges
Compounding problems for hospitals is how to handle major costs.
Some hospital systems cut some costs such as staff thanks to furloughs and other measures.
“Some hospitals have said that for every lost dollar of revenue, they were able to cut about 50 cents in costs,” the analysis said. “However, we believe that these levels of cost cuts are not sustainable.”
Hospitals can’t cut costs indefinitely, but the costs for handling the pandemic (more money for personal protective equipment and safety measures) are going to continue for some time, Moody’s added.
“As a result, hospitals will operate less efficiently in the wake of the pandemic, although their early experiences in treating COVID-19 patients will enable them to provide care more efficiently than in the early days of the pandemic,” the analysis found. “This will help hospitals free up bed capacity more rapidly and avoid the need for widespread shutdowns of elective surgeries.”
But will that capacity be put to use?
The number of surgical procedures done outside of the hospital is likely to increase and will further weaken earnings, Moody’s said.
“Outpatient procedures typically result in lower costs for both consumers and payers and will likely be preferred by more patients who are reluctant to check-in to a hospital due to COVID-19,” the analysis said.
The payer mix will also shift, and not in hospitals’ favor.Mounting job losses due to the pandemic will force more patients with commercial plans toward programs such as Medicaid.
“This will hinder hospitals’ earnings growth over the next 12-18 months,” Moody’s said. “Employer-provided health insurance pays significantly higher reimbursement rates than government-based programs.”
There are some bright spots for hospitals, including that not all of the $175 billion has been dispersed yet. The CARES Act continues to provide hospitals with a 20% add-on payment for treating Medicare patients that have COVID-19, and it suspends a 2% payment cut for Medicare payments that was installed as part of sequestration.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also proposed increasing outpatient payment rates for the 2021 fiscal year by 2.6% and in-patient rates by 2.9%. The fiscal year is set to start next month.
Patient volumes could also return to normal in 2021. Moody’s expects that patient volumes will return to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels on average in the fourth quarter of the year.
“The remaining 10% is likely to come back more slowly in 2021, but faster if a vaccine becomes widely available,” the analysis found.
Whenever the economy is put through the ringer, levels of optimism and pessimism about its potential recovery can vary greatly. The current state mid-pandemic is no exception.
This graphic first details the various shapes that economic recovery can take, and what they mean. We then dive into which of the four scenarios are perceived the most likely to occur, based on predictions made by CEOs from around the world.
The ABCs of Economic Recovery
Economic recovery comes in four distinct shapes—L, U, W, and V. Here’s what each of these are characterized by, and how long they typically last.
This scenario exhibits a sharp decline in the economy, followed by a slow recovery period. It’s often punctuated by persistent unemployment, taking several years to recoup back to previous levels.
Also referred to as the “Nike Swoosh” recovery, in this scenario the economy stagnates for a few quarters and up to two years, before experiencing a relatively healthy rise back to its previous peak.
This scenario offers a tempting promise of recovery, dips back into a sharp decline, and then finally enters the full recovery period of up to two years. This is also known as a “double-dip recession“, similar to what was seen in the early 1980s.
In this best-case scenario, the sharp decline in the economy is quickly and immediately followed by a rapid recovery back to its previous peak in less than a year, bolstered especially by economic measures and strong consumer spending.
Another scenario not covered here is the Z-shape, defined by a boom after pent-up demand. However, it doesn’t quite make the cut for the present pandemic situation, as it’s considered even more optimistic than a V-shaped recovery.
Depending on who you ask, the sentiments about a post-pandemic recovery differ greatly. So which of these potential scenarios are we really dealing with?
How CEOs Think The Economy Could Recover
The think tank The Conference Board surveyed over 600 CEOs worldwide, to uncover how they feel about the likelihood of each recovery shape playing out in the near future.
The average CEO felt that economic recovery will follow a U-shaped trajectory (42%), eventually exhibiting a slow recovery coming out of Q3 of 2020—a moderately optimistic view.
However, geography seems to play a part in these CEO estimates of how rapidly things might revert back to “normal”. Over half of European CEOs (55%) project a U-shaped recovery, which is significantly higher than the global average. This could be because recent COVID-19 hotspots have mostly shifted to other areas outside of the continent, such as the U.S., India, and Brazil.
Here’s how responses vary by region:
Gulf Region (N=16)
In the U.S. and Japan,23% of CEOs expect a second contraction to occur, meaning that economic activity could undergo a W-shape recovery. Both countries have experienced quite the hit, but there are stark differences in their resultant unemployment rates—15% at its peak in the U.S., but a mere 2.6% in Japan.
In China, 21% of CEOs—or one in five—anticipate a quick, V-shaped recovery. This is the most optimistic outlook of any region, and with good reason. Although economic growth contracted by 6.8% in the first quarter, China has bounced back to a 3.2% growth rate in the second quarter.
Finally, Gulf Region CEOs feel the most pessimistic about potential economic recovery. In the face of an oil shock, 57% predict the economy will see an L-shaped recovery that could result in depression-style stagnation in years to come.
The Economic Recovery, According to Risk Analysts
At the end of the day, CEO opinions are all over the map on the potential shape of the economic recovery—and this variance likely stems from geography, cultural biases, and of course the status of their own individual countries and industries.
Despite this, portions of all cohorts saw some possibility of an extended and drawn-out recovery. Earlier in the year, risk analysts surveyed by the World Economic Forum had similar thoughts, projecting a prolonged recession as the top risk of the post-COVID fallout.
It remains to be seen whether this will ultimately indeed be the trajectory we’re in store for.
Optimism that vaccines are on the way to end the coronavirus pandemic has been a major factor in this year’s U.S. stock resurgence. That will face a critical test in coming weeks, as investors await clinical data on whether they actually work.
A UBS analysis found that about 40% of the market’s gains since May can be pegged to hopes for vaccines to protect against COVID-19, which has killed over 960,000 worldwide and rocked the global economy.
Global efforts to develop a vaccine are coming to a head, with late-stage data on trials by companies such as Pfizer Inc <PFE.N> and Moderna Inc <MRNA.O> possible as soon as October or November. Disappointing results could further shake markets that have recently grown turbulent on worries over fiscal stimulus delays and uncertainty around the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.
“The anticipation is that this stuff is going to work,” said Walter Todd, chief investment officer at Greenwood Capital in South Carolina. “So any news to the contrary could be a risk to the market.”
The number of vaccines in development could blunt the negative market impact of any single setback. More than a half-dozen vaccines globally are in late-stage trials out of over 30 currently being tested in humans, according to the World Health Organization.
“We are setting ourselves up for success in the sense of if you throw enough spaghetti at the wall, hopefully at least one noodle sticks,” said Liz Young, director of market strategy at BNY Mellon Investment Management.
That could explain why stocks overall barely reacted earlier this month, when AstraZeneca Plc <AZN.L> and partner Oxford University paused global trials of one of the leading vaccine candidates after a participant in its U.K. trial became seriously ill. The trials have resumed in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, but remain on hold in the United States.
Some forecasts on vaccine availability have grown less optimistic. Good Judgment, a company whose forecasters make predictions based on publicly available evidence, put the chances that a vaccine will be widely distributed in the United States by the end of March at 54%. That is up from an estimate of less than 20% in early July, but down from above 70% earlier this month.
Pfizer and Moderna could report initial efficacy results in October or November based on an early read of data, followed by data from companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson <JNJ.N> and Novavax Inc <NVAX.O>.
An approval or emergency use authorization this year could lead to a surge in travel, leisure and other stocks that have been decimated by pandemic-related shutdowns, while also fueling a long-awaited shift into value stocks from tech and other growth names that have led the market for years.
Even if a vaccine is approved, questions persist about how easily and quickly it can be distributed. President Trump and his health officials have issued conflicting predictions about when the general public could have access.
“The potential for market disappointment will likely come from the realization that manufacturing and broad distribution will take longer,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities.
An approved, broadly distributed and accepted vaccine could result in a gain of about 300 points to the S&P 500, or more than 8% at the index’s current level, according to Keith Parker, head of U.S. and global equity strategy at UBS.
If a vaccine is widely distributed in the first quarter, BofA Global Research projects global gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 6.3% in 2021, compared with 5.6% if that does not occur until the third quarter.
Disappointing clinical trial news could result in a loss of 100 points from the S&P 500, or about 3%, Parker estimates.
While the market might be able to handle one vaccine setback “reasonably well,” several setbacks could cause a rethink of the vaccine race, he said.
Moody’s Investors Service maintained its negative outlook for U.S. for-profit hospitals due to waning federal aid, shifting payer mixes and varying volume trends.
Moody’s expects for-profit hospitals earnings before interest tax depreciation and amortization to decline by a low-to-mid single-digit rate in the next 12 to 18 months.
The credit rating agency maintained the negative outlook for several reasons, including that government aid to providers is beginning to wind down and most providers will see adverse payer mix shifts in the next year due to the high unemployment rate in the U.S.
In addition, volume trends and acuity levels are likely to vary significantly for these for-profit providers across the U.S. and the number of procedures performed outside of the hospital setting will continue to increase, which will weaken hospital earnings, Moody’s said.
Further, the credit rating agency said that many providers implemented rapid and aggressive cost cutting measures, which enabled them to exit the second quarter largely unscathed.
“Some hospitals have said that for every lost dollar of revenue, they were able to cut about 50 cents in costs. However, we believe that these levels of cost cuts are not sustainable,” Moody’s said.
Overall, Moody’s said it expects volumes to gradually return to pre-COVID-19 levels in 2021.
New claims for state unemployment insurance fell last week, but layoffs continue to come at an extraordinarily high level by historical standards.
Initial claims for state benefits totaled 790,000 before adjusting for seasonal factors, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The weekly tally, down from 866,000 the previous week, is roughly four times what it was before the coronavirus pandemic shut down many businesses in March.
On a seasonally adjusted basis, the total was 860,000, down from 893,000 the previous week.
“It’s not a pretty picture,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P Global. “We’ve got a long way to go, and there’s still a risk of a double-dip recession.”
The situation has been compounded by the failure of Congress to agree on new federal aid to the jobless.
“The labor market continues to heal from the viral recession, but unemployment remains extremely elevated and will remain a problem for at least a couple of years,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services. “Initial claims have been roughly flat since early August, suggesting that the pace of improvement in layoffs is slowing.”
New claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, an emergency federal program for freelance workers, independent contractors and others not eligible for regular unemployment benefits, totaled 659,000, the Labor Department reported.