What lawmakers are saying about Optum's physician transactions

UnitedHealth Group's Optum, the country's largest employer of physicians and parent company of ASC chain SCA Health, is attracting a lot of attention with its rapid growth. 

In 2023, the company added nearly 20,000 physicians, inked deals with three physician groups and three hospitals and earned $226.6 billion in total revenue. 

Some lawmakers are concerned about the growth and its effect on patient care and competition. According to a February report from The Wall Street Journal, UnitedHealth is the target of a Justice Department antitrust investigation, focusing on the company's ownership across sectors.

According to the report, the Justice Department is questioning UnitedHealth about the relationship between Optum and UnitedHealthcare and whether UnitedHealthcare favors Optum-owned physician practices, which could hurt competing practices.

On March 26, Optum announced plans to purchase financially troubled Steward Healthcare's 1,700-physician group. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren expressed concern over the sale and its potential effect on patients and healthcare workers. 

"Optum, a UnitedHealth Group subsidiary, is already the largest employer of physicians in the country — controlling over 10 percent of American doctors — which means this deal raises significant antitrust concerns in Massachusetts and nationally," she said in a March 26 statement

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey also expressed concern about the deal. 

"With this announcement, Optum must demonstrate that it can meet the even greater responsibility to preserve and protect healthcare access," Mr. Markey said March 27 at a news conference, according to a report from The Washington Post. "I hope they will live up to that responsibility by controlling costs and putting patients and providers first."

On March 13, Optum received approval to bypass a state review of its planned purchase of physician-owned Corvallis (Ore.) Clinic.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin said in comments submitted to the Oregon Health Authority before the deal was closed that Optum is "a massive organization that is not shy about repeatedly cutting corners, skirting the law and putting the well-being of patients at risk."

An emergency application was filed March 7 so the clinic "can continue serving their patients and communities with the care they need. As outlined in numerous filings and discussions with the state since December 2023, the Corvallis Clinic has significant longstanding financial issues that have come to a head, necessitating this emergency filing," a spokesperson for Optum told Becker's on March 12. The spokesperson added that the clinic's financial issues existed before the Feb. 12 cyberattack on Optum's Change Healthcare, which has created significant cash flow issues for providers around the country. 

In June, UnitedHealth Group's Optum division announced plans to acquire Amedisys for $3.3 billion, which Amedisys shareholders on Sept. 8 overwhelmingly approved. In October, Ms. Warren and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapa in a letter called on the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department's antitrust division to "carefully scrutinize" the deal. 

"Now, as the U.S. population ages and more people become eligible for Medicare, [UnitedHealth] and other large insurers are looking to cash in on the booming home health industry, allowing them to keep more premium dollars inhouse from treating patients at insurer-owned facilities," the lawmakers wrote.

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