UnitedHealth’s Optum revenues surpass $100B for 1st time

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/payer-issues/unitedhealth-s-optum-revenues-surpass-100b-for-1st-time.html?origin=cioe&utm_source=cioe

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Growth in UnitedHealth Group’s health services business Optum helped the health insurance company beat Wall Street estimates for the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, according to Reuters.

Five things to know:

1. Revenues for Optum, which is UnitedHealth’s fastest-growing unit and includes an in-house pharmacy benefits manager, topped $100 billion for the first time in the year ended Dec. 31. Optum grew revenues by 11.1 percent year over year to $101.3 billion, the company said Jan. 15.

2. While Optum may face heightened competition this year after Aetna and Cigna scored deals with large benefit managers, Piper Jaffray analyst Sarah James told Reuters: “We view [the Optum results] as a positive sign given the increasingly competitive nature of the pharmacy benefits management market. We believe 2019 could be a big year at OptumHealth … and see potential for specialty [drugs] to double earnings by 2021.”

3. For the fourth quarter, the country’s largest health insurer posted $27.56 billion in revenues from its Optum unit, up 13 percent year over year. 

4. Still, UnitedHealth’s medical care ratio — or the amount of premiums used to cover medical expenses compared to overhead costs — fell short of expectations at 82.2 percent, according to Reuters. Higher costs in UnitedHealth’s government-sponsored Medicaid business were partially to blame, analysts told the publication.

5. UnitedHealth’s insurance business, UnitedHealthcare, increased sales by 11.1 percent in the fourth quarter, for a total of $46.2 billion. Net earnings to shareholders fell 16 percent to $3 billion in the fourth quarter, compared to $3.6 billion a year prior.

 

 

Short-Term Health Plans Hold Savings For Consumers, Profits For Brokers And Insurers

https://www.thelundreport.org/content/short-term-health-plans-hold-savings-consumers-profits-brokers-and-insurers?mc_cid=87537ae734&mc_eid=1d14ffb322

Sure, they’re less expensive for consumers, but short-term health policies have another side: They’re highly profitable for insurers and offer hefty sales commissions.

Driven by rising premiums for Affordable Care Act plans, interest in short-term insurance is growing, boosted by Trump administration actions to ease Obama-era restrictions and possibly make federal subsidies available to consumers to purchase them.

That’s good news for brokers, who often see commissions on such policies hit 20 percent or more.

On a policy costing $200 a month, for example, that could translate to a $40 payment each month. By contrast, ACA plan commissions, which are often flat dollar amounts rather than a percentage of premium, can range from zero to $20 per enrollee per month.

“Customers are paying less and I’m making more,” said Cindy Holtzman, a broker in Woodstock, Ga., who said she gets 20 percent on short-term plan commissions.

Large online brokers also are eagerly eyeing the market.

Ehealth, one such firm, will “continue to shift our focus to selling short-term plans and non-ACA insurance packages,” CEO Scott Flanders told investors in October. The firm saw an 18 percent annual jump in enrollment in short-term plans this year, he added.

Insurers, too, see strong profits from plans because they generally pay out very little toward medical care when compared with the more comprehensive ACA plans.

Still, some agents like Holtzman have mixed feelings about selling the plans, because they offer skimpier coverage than ACA insurance. One 58-year-old client of Holtzman’s wanted one, but he had health problems. She also learned his income qualified him for an ACA subsidy, which currently cannot be used to purchase short-term coverage.

“There’s no way I would have considered a short-term plan for him,” she said. “I found him an ACA plan for $360 a month with a reduced deductible.” (A federal district court judge in Texas issued a ruling Dec. 14 striking down the ACA, which would among other things impact the requirements of ACA coverage and subsidies. The decision is expected to face appeal.)

Short-term plans can be far less expensive than ACA plans because they set annual or lifetime payment limits. Most exclude people with medical conditions, they often don’t cover prescription drugs, and policies exclude in fine print some conditions or treatments. Injuries sustained in school sports programs, for example, often are not covered. (These plans can be purchased at any time throughout the year, which is different than plans sold through the federal marketplaces. The open enrollment period for those ACA plans in most states ends Dec. 15.)

Consequently, insurers providing short-term plans don’t have to pay as many medical bills, so they have more money left over for profits. In forms filed with state regulators, Independence American Insurance Co. in Ohio shows it expects 60 percent of its premium revenue to be spent on its enrollees’ medical care. The remaining 40 percent can go to profits, executive salaries, marketing and commissions.

A 2016 report from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners showed that, on average, short-term plans paid out about 67 percent of their earnings on medical care.

That compares with ACA plans, which are required under the law to spend at least 80 percent of premium revenue on medical claims.

Short-term plans have long been sold mainly as a stopgap measure for people between jobs or school coverage. While exact figures are not available, brokers say interest dropped when the ACA took effect in 2014 because many people got subsidies to buy ACA plans and having a short-term plan did not exempt consumers from the law’s penalty for not carrying insurance.

But this year it ticked up again after Congress eliminated the penalty for 2019 coverage. At the same time, the premiums for ACA plans rose on average more than 30 percent.

“If I don’t want someone to walk out of the office with nothing at all because of cost, that’s when I will bring up short-term plans,” said Kelly Rector, president of Denny & Associates, an insurance sales brokerage in O’Fallon, a suburb of St. Louis. “But I don’t love the plans because of the risk.”

The Obama administration limited short-term plans to 90-day increments to reduce the number of younger or healthier people who would leave the ACA market. That rule, the Trump administration complained, forced people to reapply every few months and risk rejection by insurers if their health had declined.

This summer, the administration finalized new rules allowing insurers to offer short-term plans for up to 12 months — and gave them the option to allow renewals for up to three years. States can be more restrictive or even bar such plans altogether.

Administration officials estimate short-term plans could be half the cost of the more comprehensive ACA insurance and draw 600,000 people to enroll in 2019, with 100,000 to 200,000 of those dropping ACA coverage to do so.

And recent guidance to states says they could seek permission to allow federal subsidies to be used for short-term plans. Currently, those subsidies apply only to ACA-compliant plans.

Granting subsidies for short-term plans “would mean tax dollars are not only subsidizing commissions, but also executive salaries and marketing budgets,” said Sabrina Corlette of Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

No state has yet applied to do that.

For now, brokers are focusing on getting their clients into some kind of coverage for next year. Commissions on both ACA and short-term plans are getting their attention.

After several years of declining commissions for ACA plans — with some carriers cutting them altogether a couple of years ago — brokers say they are seeing a bit of a rebound.

Among Colorado ACA insurers, “it’s gone from about $14 to $16 per enrollee [a month] to $16 to $18,” said Louise Norris, a health policy writer and co-owner of an insurance brokerage.

Rector, in Missouri, said an insurer that last year paid no commissions has reinstated them for 2019 coverage. For her, that doesn’t really matter, she said, because once carriers started reducing or eliminating commissions, she began charging clients a flat rate to enroll.

Norris noted that some states changed their laws so brokers could do just that.

At least one state, Connecticut, ruled that insurers had to pay a commission, which she thinks is protective for consumers.

“Insurance regulators need to step in and make sure brokers are getting paid,” said Norris, or some brokers, “out of necessity,” might steer people to higher-commission products, such as short-term plans, that might not be the best answer for their clients.

Her agency does not sell short-term or some other types of limited-benefit plans.

“I don’t want to have a client come back and say I’ve had a heart attack and have all these unpaid bills,” she said.

 

 

 

Conservatives Are Using the Courts to Attack Health Care for All Americans

https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/healthcare/news/2018/12/20/464562/conservatives-using-courts-attack-health-care-americans/

A doctor in Milton, Massachusetts, wheels his patient into his office, February 2018.

Conservative state officials, in conjunction with the Trump administration, have launched an all-out attack on health care in the United States. They have brought a suit to overturn the entirety of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which would have serious consequences for nearly every American who has health coverage, whether through their employer, the individual market, Medicare, or Medicaid. And they found a partisan judge who, last Friday, proved willing to ignore the rule of law and help them advance their political agenda through the courts.

For now, the ACA remains the law of the land. But if the partisan decision in Texas v. United States is upheld, the consequences could be devastating. The Urban Institute estimates that overturning the ACA would result in 17 million more Americans being uninsured in 2019—in addition to coverage reductions that would occur due to the elimination of the individual mandate penalty. Millions of American families could be left without access to health care—and without the financial safety and peace of mind that health insurance provides. Overturning the law would also have serious negative effects on public health and drug development and would shorten the life of the Medicare trust fund. Moreover, it would provide a major tax break to the wealthiest Americans, insurance companies, and drug manufacturers.

Supporters of the decision have talked about this as an effort to end “Obamacare,” which may cause some people to mistakenly believe it only affects those who obtain coverage through the individual marketplace. Nothing could be further from the truth: Virtually no American’s health care coverage would be safe from the effects of this decision. Here are just some of the impacts that this decision, if upheld, would have.

Risks for people who obtain coverage through their employer

  • Lifetime and annual limits on coverage: Polling shows that without the ACA’s ban on lifetime and annual caps on benefits, firms would choose to reinstate limits on coverage. Tens of millions of workers and dependents could face annual or lifetime limits.
  • Loss of coverage for young adult children: The ACA requires employer plans that cover dependents to include young adults up to age 26. More than 2 million young adults have gained coverage under the ACA’s dependent coverage provision.
  • Loss of free preventive services, including contraception: The ACA requires preventive services—such as immunizations; screenings for cancer, diabetes, and depression; and well-child visits—to be available at no cost to the patient. Womensave about $250 annually thanks to the lack of cost sharing for contraception.
  • Elimination of rebates to cover excessively high premiums: The ACA requires insurers to provide rebates if they overprice premiums relative to actual medical costs. Under the ACA’s medical loss ratio provision, insurance companies paid back $344 million in 2016 to people with employer coverage.

Risks for people who receive coverage through Medicare

  • Increases in premiums and out-of-pocket costs: Elimination of the ACA would increase some beneficiaries’ premiums, deductibles, and copayments in Medicare Part A and Part B; overturning the law would eliminate Medicare savings, and premiums are based on program spending.
  • Cost sharing for preventive services such as mammograms: Under the ACA, Medicare provides preventive services and covers a yearly wellness visit at no cost to the patient.
  • Possibility of falling back into the prescription drug coverage gap: The ACA narrowed the Part D coverage gap and was on track to completely fill it by 2020. Without the ACA, many seniors could face higher costs for prescription medications.

Risks for people who receive coverage through Medicaid

  • Loss of coverage under the Medicaid expansion: About 12 million people are covered under the Medicaid expansion, which was funded mostly by the federal government under the ACA.
  • Higher costs for preventive services such as children’s vaccines: The ACA provided a financial incentive for states to provide preventive services to Medicaid beneficiaries free of charge, which a number of states currently utilize.
  • Fewer options to receive care in homes and communities: The ACA provided new options to states to allow elderly enrollees and enrollees with disabilities to receive care in their homes. If the law is overturned, more enrollees will be forced into institutional care.

Risks for people who buy insurance on their own

  • Loss of tax credits that make coverage affordable: Nearly 9 in 10 enrollees in the ACA marketplaces receive premium tax credits. Without the ACA, enrollees would lose financial assistance toward monthly premiums, as well as funding that helps lower deductibles and copayments.
  • Increased costs or denial of coverage due to pre-existing conditions: Without the ACA, individual market insurers would be allowed to charge more, exclude coverage benefits, or turn away people based on medical history. More than 133 millionAmericans with pre-existing conditions could be subject to discrimination if they ever needed individual market coverage.
  • Increased costs for older enrollees: The ACA limits how much more insurance companies can charge older people for coverage relative to younger ones. Without the ACA’s protections, the elderly and near-elderly would see their premiums rise

The legal reasoning behind the lower court’s decision to overturn the ACA is so poor that it has been decried by even some of the most strident conservative legal critics of the law—including those who have backed the previous efforts to overturn it through the courts. Congress has tried and failed to repeal the ACA, and voters in the midterm elections made it clear that they care about keeping protections for pre-existing conditions. Yet the court’s ruling has been approvingly cited by conservative political officials, including President Donald Trump. As such, the decision is best understood not as a legal opinion but instead as a policy preference pursued through the U.S. judiciary. That preference could not be clearer: to give the country’s wealthy and special interests massive taxes cuts—and pay for them with everyone else’s health care.

 

 

 

Anthem’s Q3 profit jumps 29% to $960M

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/payer-issues/anthem-s-q3-profit-jumps-29-to-960m.html?origin=ceoe&utm_source=ceoe

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Anthem posted strong operating results in the third quarter of 2018.

Here are four things to know from the health insurer’s results:

1. Anthem’s operating revenue grew 4 percent in the third quarter of this year to $23 billion, up from $22.1 billion in the same period a year prior. The health insurer said premium increases and the return of the health insurance tax in 2018 positively affected operating revenue, as did growth in its Medicare business.

2. Anthem’s reduced footprint in the individual ACA exchanges, local group and Medicaid plans contributed to a year-over-year decline in membership in the third quarter of this year compared to the same three months in 2017. Anthem lost 753,000 members year over year and now has 39.5 million members. At the same time, Anthem grew its Medicare membership year over year by 267,000 members in the third quarter of this year through acquisitions and organic growth.

3. Anthem trimmed its medical loss ratio, or the amount the health insurer pays toward medical care versus overhead costs, to 84.8 percent in the third quarter of this year. That’s down from 87 percent in the same period last year. Lower taxes and better medical cost performance in its commercial and specialty insurance lines contributed to the improvement.

4. Including expenses and nonoperating gains, Anthem ended the third quarter of 2018 with $960 million in net income, up 29 percent from $747 million recorded in the same period last year.

 

Trump administration issues rule further watering down Obamacare

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-healthcare-regulation/trump-administration-issues-rule-further-watering-down-obamacare-idUSKBN1HG384

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The Trump administration took additional steps to weaken Obamacare on Monday, allowing U.S. states to relax the rules on what insurers must cover and giving states more power to regulate their individual insurance markets.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a final rule that allows states to select essential health benefits that must be covered by individual insurance plans sold under former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law. The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires coverage of 10 benefits, including maternity and newborn care and prescription drugs. Under the new rule, states can select from a much larger list which benefits insurers must cover.

That could lead to less generous coverage in some states, according to Avalere Health, a research and consulting firm.

President Donald Trump’s administration has used its regulatory power to undermine Obamacare after the Republican-controlled Congress last year failed to repeal and replace the law. About 20 million people have received health insurance coverage through the program.

The new CMS rule also allows states the possibility of modifying the medical loss ratio (MLR) formula, the amount an insurer spends on medical claims compared with income from premiums that is also a key performance metric. A state can request “reasonable adjustments” to the medical loss ratio standard if it shows that it could help stabilize its individual market.

Insurers could also have an easier time raising their rates under the new rule. Obamacare mandated that premium rate increases of 10 percent or more in the individual market be scrutinized by state regulators to ensure that they are necessary and reasonable. The new CMS rule raises that threshold to 15 percent.

 

Why payers are flocking to the Medicare Advantage market

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/why-payers-are-flocking-to-the-medicare-advantage-market/510589/

Medicare Advantage (MA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges are both federal programs, but they couldn’t be more different in payers’ eyes. Insurance companies are entering or expanding their footprints in the MA market, while simultaneously pulling back or out of the ACA exchanges. They’ve found success in MA. Not so much in the ACA exchanges.

Payers see MA as a stable market. That’s evident in the fact that MA premiums are expected to decrease by 6% next year. Insurance companies like stability. Insurers increase premiums by double digits when there isn’t stability, which is the case with the ACA exchanges.

A large part of the ACA exchanges’ problems is linked to actions and inaction in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump’s administration stopped paying cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, cut the exchanges’ open enrollment in half, reduced the exchanges’ advertising budget by 90%, offered proposed rules and executive orders that hurt the ACA and threatened not to enforce the individual mandate that requires almost all Americans to have health insurance.

Congress, meanwhile, has tried and failed to repeal the ACA this year. All of this created an unstable exchanges market, which resulted in payers leaving the exchanges or jacking up premiums by 20% or more for 2018.

Meanwhile, the MA market is a picture of stability and payer success.

  • There is a steady stream of new people eligible for Medicare daily, and many choose MA.
  • People usually don’t switch back from MA plans after leaving traditional Medicare.
  • Payers can easily convert members from traditional Medicare to MA via marketing campaigns.
  • The MA demographics are usually people who once had an employer-based plan, so they know insurance and how healthcare works. That also means they usually don’t have pent-up healthcare needs.
  • The CMS pays MA plans upfront for covering people with high healthcare costs and payers have enjoyed stable MA payments from the CMS.

So, MA members are easier to get and keep, they usually have fewer health needs and payers like the MA payment structure better than the exchanges, which get compensated at the end of the year. All of that equals a stable market for payers.

One-third of Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in an MA plan this year compared to 25% just six years ago. Enrollment grew by 8% between 2016 and 2017 and the CMS recently announced that MA membership will grow by 9% to 20.4 million members in 2018.

Gretchen Jacobson, associate director with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF) Program on Medicare Policy, told Healthcare Dive that more than half of those in Medicare will have MA plans in many counties next year.

That growth isn’t expected to slow — especially with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, according to Steve Wiggins, founder and chairman of Remedy Partners.

“With Republican control of the federal government, it is conceivable that Medicare Advantage will become a centerpiece of CMS’ strategy to control spending growth,” Wiggins told Healthcare Dive.

What more MA members and payers mean for hospitals and providers

With more MA members expected next year, the continual shift to MA will have mixed benefits for providers. Jacobson said it’s not entirely clear how more MA members will affect hospitals and providers. “One of our studies recently showed that the provider networks for Medicare Advantage plans greatly varies and these networks will become even more important as enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans grows,” she said.

Fred Bentley, vice president at Avalere Health, told Healthcare Dive that MA’s growth will present a whole new set of challenges for hospitals and health systems.

Bentley listed two issues:

  • Narrow networks
  • Tighter utilization management compared to Medicare’s fee-for-service model

recent KFF report found that 35% of MA enrollees were in narrow-network plans in 2015. Payers have increasingly turned to narrow networks to control costs and improve quality of care. To take part in the narrower networks, physicians usually have to agree to payer demands concerning cost and quality.

“Differences across plans, including provider networks, pose challenges for Medicare beneficiaries in choosing among plans and in seeking care, and raise questions for policymakers about the potential for wide variations in the healthcare experience of Medicare Advantage enrollees across the country,” KFF said.

Another issue for hospitals and providers is that more payers involved in capitated plans like MA will result in more pressure on providers and hospitals to focus on the cost of care, Michael Abrams, partner at Numerof & Associates, told Healthcare Dive.

“With Republican control of the federal government, it is conceivable that Medicare Advantage will become a centerpiece of CMS’ strategy to control spending growth.”

There’s also the issue of having too few MA payers in some regions. Aneesh Krishna, partner in McKinsey & Company’s Silicon Valley office, told Healthcare Dive the concentration of MA plans in certain markets is a worry for providers. “This concern would be magnified in markets where there is a similarly high concentration in commercial segments from the same payers, and where overall MA penetration is high,” he said.

There’s also a potential payment issue. MA generally reimburses at a slightly higher level than traditional Medicare, but utilization is managed more tightly. Krishna said providers willing and capable of sharing medical cost savings are “likely to see more benefit from the shift to Medicare Advantage plans.” However, MA networks are often narrow, which means providers will need to weigh the relative price/volume trade-offs of accepting MA.

More MA growth in the coming years

MA will have more payers and members than ever next year and the two largest payers, UnitedHealth and Humana, are expected to increase their footprint. Despite new payers showing interest in the market, Jacobson expects the market break down will look similar in 2018. She said small payers entering the market will offset the plans exiting MA next year.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and HHS both project MA enrollment will continue to grow over the next decade. The CBO estimated that about 41% of Medicare beneficiaries will have an MA plan in 2027. UnitedHealth even predicted half of Medicare beneficiaries will eventually have an MA plan.

MA’s popularity with payers is easy to understand — 10,000 people turn 65 every day. The CBO expects 80 million Americans will be eligible for Medicare by 2035.

There’s also an opportunity in the MA market to sign up members quickly. Rachel Sokol, practice manager of research at Advisory Board, told Healthcare Dive that utilizing a strong marketing engine allows payers to grow MA membership. This is quite different from the employer-based market, which relies on payers working with companies.

Potential MA barriers

The MA market is largely positive for payers, but it does face challenges, including:

  • A small number of payers dominate the market
  • The CMS expects improved efficiency and savings
  • There is increased federal oversight, especially concerning possible overpayments to MA insurers

CMS is all in supporting MA plans and its marketspace. The agency last week proposed a rule with an aim toward improving quality and affordability in contract year 2019. According to the agency, the number of plans available to individuals will increase from about 2,700 to more than 3,100.

The agency is proposing to expand the definition of quality improvement activity to include fraud reduction activities, changing the medical loss ratio (MLR) requirements for Medicare Advantage plans. This change should excite payers because they can add the administrative service to the MLR ratio they are required to spend on healthcare, which is at least 85%. CMS states it believes the service will help combat fraud.

For now, the MA market is consolidated around only a handful of payers. UnitedHealth and Humana have more than 40% of the market. UnitedHealth has one-quarter on its own. KFF said UnitedHealth, Humana and Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliates make up 57% of MA enrollment and the top eight MA payers constitute three-quarters of the market.

Also, CMS is imposing improved efficiency in the traditional Medicare program. This could ultimately affect MA. Accountable care organizations (ACO) and bundled payments will “put downward pressure on the benchmarks used to set payment rates for Medicare Advantage plans,” Wiggins said.

This pressure will result in MA payers needing to either cut costs or trim benefits. “The former is difficult, except through narrow networks, and the latter will diminish the attractiveness of Medicare Advantage plans,” he said.

Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the market — potential overpayments. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has joined whistleblower lawsuits against UnitedHealth Group concerning MA overpayments. The lawsuits allege that UnitedHealth changed diagnosis codes to make patients seem sicker, which resulted in higher reimbursements to the insurer. A federal judge threw out one of the lawsuits in October.

The DOJ is investigating other MA payers for the same reason, and Congress is also interested. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma in April questioning what CMS is doing to “implement safeguards to reduce score fraud, waste and abuse.” Grassley said there was about $70 billion in improper Medicare Advantage payments between 2008 and 2013 because of “risk score gaming.”

It’s understandable that investigators and Congress have grown interested in MA payers. The federal government paid $160 billion to MA payers in 2014. The CMS estimated about 9.5% of those payments were improper.

The combination of billions being paid to insurers, the potential for fraud and growing membership numbers make MA ripe for oversight. The stability of the market, particularly compared to other options for payers, however, will mean growth continues.

 

Aetna’s profits rise 39% despite revenue shortfall

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/payer-issues/aetna-s-profits-rise-39-despite-revenue-shortfall.html

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Aetna saw revenues dip 5 percent in the third quarter of fiscal year 2017 compared to the year prior, but cost containment allowed the insurer to boost net income.

The insurer reported revenue of $15 billion in the third quarter ended Sept. 30, down from $15.8 billion in the same period a year prior. Aetna cited lower premiums in its healthcare segment, fewer members in its ACA exchange business, and temporary suspension of the health insurer fee as contributors to the decline.

However, tapering expenses offset revenue losses. Aetna witnessed expenses drop 7 percent from $14.7 billion in the third quarter of 2016 to $13.7 billion in the same period this year. The insurer attributed the decline to temporary suspension of the health insurer fee, expense management efforts and lower transaction-related cost following the collapse of its proposed merger with Humana in February.

Overall, the payer achieved net income of $838 million in the third quarter of 2017, up 39 percent from $604 million in the same period last year. Aetna also saw its commercial medical loss ratio, or the amount of money it spends on medical claims, shrink year over year from 83.8 percent to 81.4 percent.

Aetna’s earnings report did not mention CVS Health’s proposed $66 billion bid to acquire the company.