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UnitedHealth Group's second-quarter profit jumped to $6.6 billion — double the earnings from the same period last year, and far beyond expectations — as the nation's largest health insurer paid out far fewer claims with the temporary shutdown of elective procedures due to COVID-19.

The Minnetonka-based health care giant said Wednesday that profits were substantially higher than normal because of the unprecedented delay in elective and nonemergency procedures, as hospitals and clinics prepared for and responded to the pandemic.

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After leveling off in May, COVID-19 cases have begun to spike in several Sun Belt states, resulting in a surge of hospital use. Even so, UnitedHealth Group executives said Wednesday they don't expect another nationwide shutdown of elective health care, projecting instead above-average demand for services during the second half of the year.

As patients return to the health system, they might need more services than normal, said David Wichmann, UnitedHealth Group's chief executive.

"We currently expect care access patterns, while somewhat more volatile than in the past, to moderately exceed normal baselines in the second half [of the year], as people seek previously deferred care," Wichmann said during a call with investors.

"It's kind of hard to ignore the number of new diagnoses that dropped off," he said. "It's hard to ignore the drop-off in [care for] heart attacks, stroke. … It may be speculative here, but I think the data that we see suggests that there will be some intensity in services that people receive."

At its lowest point in April, use of hospital services was about three-quarters of baseline, but it rebounded by the end of June to 95% of normal, said John Rex, the company's chief financial officer. Use of outpatient and physician services fell to 60% of normal, Rex said, but was above 90% of the baseline by the end of June.

With profits booming because of depressed demand for health care, the company's UnitedHealthcare health insurance division has pledged to address "imbalances" through a number of measures including premium rebates, cost-sharing waivers and grace periods for customer payments.

Overall, the company said it has provided $1.5 billion in direct customer and consumer support thus far, and pledged Wednesday another $1 billion in future rebates.

During the second quarter, enrollment in fully insured health plans at UnitedHealthcare declined by about 150,000 people, to just over 8 million. Most customers in this category are employers that hire UnitedHealthcare to assume financial risk for the medical cost of employee health plans.

The enrollment drop isn't as large as might be expected given the broader trends with unemployment, Dirk McMahon, the UnitedHealthcare chief executive, said Wednesday. One factor is federal stimulus funds that have helped employers, McMahon said. Plus, many employers opted to reduce costs in the second quarter by putting workers on furlough and maintaining benefits, he said, rather than through outright job cuts.

"There's no doubt, there's going to be sort of a delayed impact because of the stimulus actions, and it'll be a little more pronounced in the second half," McMahon said.

UnitedHealthcare paid out about 70 cents for every dollar of premium revenue in the second quarter, compared with last year's claims expense of about 83 cents for every dollar of premium revenue. COVID-19 caused unexpected medical costs during the quarter from patients sickened in the pandemic, but the expenses were more than offset by savings for the insurance company because of fewer elective procedures.

Earnings from operations at UnitedHealthcare jumped from $2.6 billion in the year-ago quarter to $7 billion during the three-month period ending June 30. The profit margin at the health insurance business was about 14%, compared with about 5% in the year-ago quarter.

UnitedHealth Group is Minnesota's largest company by revenue, with more than 320,000 employees worldwide.

"We maintained our full workforce," Wichmann said. "Nobody has been laid off or furloughed or dismissed because of COVID-19."

UnitedHealthcare provided health insurance coverage at the end of June to about 43 million people in the U.S. Beyond employer groups, the company manages care for the Medicare and Medicaid government health programs and administers self-insured health plans for large employers.

Optum, which is the UnitedHealth Group division for health care services, has become one of the nation's largest operators of medical clinics in recent years.

The trend has continued through the pandemic, executives said Wednesday, with 6,500 employed or affiliated clinicians joining the company so far this year. Growth includes "several hundred new surgeons," Wichmann said.

With the pandemic, the OptumCare business shifted more than 14,000 physicians to telehealth visits as part of an industrywide shift of care away from brick-and-mortar facilities. Revenue from the division that includes OptumCare was down slightly between the first and second quarters, but earnings from operations increased from $712 million to $841 million.

UnitedHealth Group earned $6.64 billion on $62.1 billion in revenue during the three-month period, double the company's $3.29 billion profit on $60.6 billion in revenue during last year's second quarter.

Adjusted earnings of $7.12 per share far surpassed the $5.18 per share expected among analysts surveyed by Refinitiv. Quarterly revenue of $62.14 billion fell short of expectations.

The company maintained its earnings outlook of adjusted net earnings of $16.25 to $16.55 per share. Adjusted earnings exclude factors the company believes don't relate to the underlying business, such as amortization of acquisition-related intangible assets.

Shares of UnitedHealth Group closed on Wednesday down 1.48% at $304.07.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck