Flu Epidemic: Insurers Tracking the Cost of Healthcare

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Insurers are counting the costs of this winter's flu outbreaks. Image Credit: Ruud de Jong

Insurers are counting the costs of this winter’s flu outbreaks. Image Credit: Ruud de Jong

This winter is proving costly for health insurance providers and the American economy alike as growing numbers of patients require medical treatment for influenza. Insurance officials have been speaking out on their financial predictions for the season, and the ways in which the nature of managing the flu is bringing about changes to the cost of care.

Flu Epidemic: The Cost for Insurers

The three major healthcare insurers (UnitedHealth Group Inc, WellPoint Inc, and Aetna Inc) are expecting to pay over $100 million more than in a typical flu season this winter.

Mark Bertolini, chief executive officer of Aetna, has downplayed the impact of this winters’ flu outbreaks, estimating that the total cost will be “between $50 and $100 million dollars,” and that it will be significantly less than the costs incurred during the 2009 pandemic. This still shows that the company is expecting the cost of managing influenza in 2013 to be at least 100% more than last year, which saw the Aetna spending around $25 million on the flu.

Google Flu Trends to Assess Financial Implications

As well as developing contingency plans for epidemics and pandemics, technology is also helping insurers assess the likely financial implications of potential disease. Bertolini revealed that Aetna uses the Google Flu Trends map to assess the flu season. According to Google, the numbers of sufferers has peaked and, unless a second peak is on the horizon, costs should remain manageable, and below the soaring expenses of 2009.

2013 Flu: What’s Different?

Tracking the physical numbers of sufferers is not the only way insurers are assessing the financial implications of this year’s epidemic flu season. Many have also noted a change in the way sufferers are treating the illness. During a Fox Business interview, Mark Bertolini suggested that, despite high levels of people suffering with the flu this winter, those affected are increasingly opting to stay at home and self-treat rather than seeking hospital treatment. This observation is echoed by Dave Shove, an analyst with BMO Capital Markets, who last week noted that a key factor in this year’s flu costs, as compared to those in 2009, is that “a lot of people are not going to the hospital to get admitted … They are just staying on the couch at home.

Flu: The Overall Cost

Influenza is estimated to cost the American economy more than $87 billion every year, without taking pandemics or higher than average outbreaks into account. Lost working days, spending dips, medical care, and the negative impact on tourism all contribute to the total cost shouldered by the economy as a whole. Will 2013’s flu season be on the high side of estimates, due to the epidemic-level of infections, or the low side due to patients staying home instead of going to the hospital? Only time will tell.

Resources:

Humer, C. Insurers tally flu’s cost as US epidemic continues. (2013). Reuters Health News. Accessed January 28, 2013.

Dow Jones Newswires. Aetna CEO Doesn’t See Flu Season Matching 2009. (2013). Fox Business News.

Google. Explore Flu Trends: U.S. (2013). Accessed January 28, 2013.

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