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Health Insurers See 'Universal' Opportunity

Stocks in this article: HUM UNH CI

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Health insurance companies such as Humana (HUM) and UnitedHealth (UNH) always seem to pay a price for "gifts" from the federal government.

Over the past several years, they have pocketed billions of dollars in government subsidies selling private Medicare plans. They know that Democrats aim to cut those bonus payments, however, so they're searching for new ways to grow. They see universal health care, which could turn 46 million uninsured Americans into potential customers, as their next big opportunity.

President-elect Barack Obama has regularly listed universal health care among his top priorities. Even so, some experts believe, the new president must address his prime concern -- the economic crisis -- before he can think about launching an expensive health care program. As a result, they say, private insurers will likely endure the looming Medicare cuts with little opportunity to offset those losses.

"There isn't going to be a growth driver in the health insurance business for the next few years," predicts Robert Laszewski, an industry consultant who serves as president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates. "It's going to be very bad times relative to the very good times" health insurance companies have enjoyed.

Others still see a real chance for meaningful reform. They believe that the economic crisis has been caused in part by skyrocketing health care costs, which have been blamed for half of all personal bankruptcies and the decline of giant corporations such as General Motors (GM) and Ford (F). As a result, they feel that the country's leaders must address both issues at the same time.

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