Profits in a pandemic

Coronavirus Daily
Bloomberg

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When the pandemic lifts the bottom line

U.S. health insurers find themselves in an awkward spot: They're profiting from the pandemic.

They're not trying to exploit the situation for a windfall, like price gougers selling medical masks. It's simply a consequence of their role in the health-care system. Employers, individuals and governments pay premiums to insurers, who then pay doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and other providers when their members get care.

But most people aren't seeing a doctor or going to the hospital right now. The drop-off in surgeries, office visits and regular, face-to-face health care nationwide has been swift and steep. It's more than offset the increased costs of treating Covid-19, which largely still haven't hit insurers.

As a result, none of the major U.S. health insurers have lowered their profit outlook for the year. They're emphasizing all they do for members, clinicians and employers in the pandemic, including covering members' share of costs for Covid-19 testing and treatment. And by law, they must rebate some premium money if claims costs fall far short of expectations.

Insurance companies, never high on Americans' list of favorite industries, are aware that booking big profits as a virus sweeps across a locked-down country isn't a great look. Especially when a substantial minority of the electorate recently voted for a candidate who basically wants to legislate them out of business.

Some are touting their own health-care delivery operations, technology to enable telehealth, and apps to monitor for Covid-19 symptoms. They describe themselves as health-services businesses, rather than using the I-word. And many do much more than the core function of pooling risk. But that business, at least for now, is looking pretty good.—John Tozzi

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What you should read

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U.S. Airlifts PPE in Supply Push
Democrats seek details on cost from companies, White House.
Virus Likely to Leave Telltale Signs, Fauci Says
'Extremely unusual' if illness doesn't result in antibodies: Fauci.
Singapore Unveils New Measures as Cases Jump
More beds, medical help planned to reduce foreign worker cases.
Covid's Long-term Investor Pain is Clear
Indisputable takeaway from the crisis is a massive expansion in global debt.

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