UnitedHealth Group is warning that it might withdraw from Obamacare by 2017 because it's losing too much money. I'm sure the warning is legit, but it should really be viewed as a negotiation gambit.
The company admits it's "a potentially huge blow" to the new system: "If a major publicly traded insurer bows out, others may follow and destabilize the entire individual market."
Game over for ObamaCare?
UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley seems to imply just that: "We can't really subsidize a marketplace that doesn't appear at the moment to be sustaining itself."
As Megan McArdle points out writes about the potential for an Obamacare death spiral, but of course she's cautious in making predictions.
An earnings call like today's can also be a bargaining tactic. Health insurers are engaged in a sort of perpetual negotiation with regulators over how much they'll be allowed to charge, what sort of help they'll get from the government if they lose money, and a thousand other things. Signaling that you're willing to pull out of the market if you don't get a better deal is a great way to improve your bargaining position with legislators and regulatory agencies.
That said, strategic positioning is obviously far from the whole story, or even the majority of it. UnitedHealth really is losing money on these policies right now. It really is seeing something that looks dangerously like adverse selection.
No matter how you look at it, the news isn't good for the Affordable Care Act.