U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C. on January 24, 2023.

(Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden DOJ Launches Antitrust Probe Into Medicare Advantage Behemoth UnitedHealth

"For years, UnitedHealth has unfairly and illegally leveraged each of its businesses to strategically squeeze out competitors and monopolize all corners of healthcare," said one researcher.

The U.S. Justice Department has launched an antitrust investigation into UnitedHealth Group, the world's largest health insurance company and a major provider of private Medicare Advantage plans that are notorious for denying necessary care and bilking taxpayers.

The probe, first reported by The Examiner News and confirmed by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, drew applause from anti-monopoly campaigners who argue that healthcare industry consolidation has harmed patients through higher costs and worse care.

Matt Stoller, research director at the American Economic Liberties Project, said in a statement Tuesday that the Department of Justice is "right to investigate UnitedHealth Group for monopolization, and we hope to see enforcement action taken soon."

"For years, UnitedHealth has unfairly and illegally leveraged each of its businesses to strategically squeeze out competitors and monopolize all corners of healthcare, from insurance and pharmaceuticals to home healthcare," said Stoller. "In the process, UnitedHealth has degraded patient care, demoralized and devalued doctors and nurses, put independent pharmacies out of business, and ripped off taxpayers."

"United gained its foothold on the system through its relentless path of acquisitions."

The Examiner News reported that the DOJ notified UnitedHealth last October that it had launched a "non-public antitrust investigation into the company." According to the Journal, Justice Department investigators "have in recent weeks been interviewing healthcare industry representatives in sectors where UnitedHealth competes, including doctor groups."

Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, is the largest employer of doctors in the U.S., and the company is currently working to acquire the home healthcare provider Amedisys in a $3.3 billion deal that has drawn scrutiny from the Justice Department.

As Krista Brown and Sara Sirota wrote last year for the newsletter HEALTH CARE un-covered, "It's not hyperbole to describe UnitedHealth as the bulk of our country's healthcare system—and its $85 billion in publicly disclosed acquisition spending played a big part."

"United gained its foothold on the system through its relentless path of acquisitions," they added, "and each additional business it purchases is, and has been, used to leverage its control of the healthcare industry."

UnitedHealth is currently the nation's largest provider of privately run, publicly funded Medicare Advantage plans, which have faced growing criticism from the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers for dramatically overcharging the federal government and denying care claims that likely would have been approved under traditional Medicare.

Last year, UnitedHealth ditched the brand name naviHealth, a technology-focused subsidiary that faced backlash after reporting by STAT detailed the company's use of artificial intelligence algorithms to deny essential care to elderly patients.

Additionally, as Brown and Sirota noted, UnitedHealth employees alleged that company executives " pressured them to deny coverage or lose their jobs," sparking a class-action lawsuit.

"In short, naviHealth was transformed from a company meant to better manage post-acute care to a machine that maximizes profits," Brown and Sirota added. "It was UnitedHealth-ified."

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