UnitedHealth profit tops views as enrollment rises

MINNETONKA, Minn. ― UnitedHealth Group Inc. posted a higher-than-expected fourth-quarter profit on Thursday, helped by increased membership across its array of health plans.

The largest U.S. health insurer by market value also backed its 2012 earnings forecast, which includes the potential for a decline in profit but which many analysts have seen as conservative. Shares rose 1.4 percent.

“As the bellwether and first to report, UnitedHealth results bode well for managed care earnings season,” Goldman Sachs analyst Matthew Borsch said in a research note.

UnitedHealth’s quarterly net income rose to $1.26 billion, or $1.17 per share, compared with $1.04 billion, or 94 cents per share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average were expecting $1.04 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue rose 8 percent to $25.92 billion, about $230 million ahead of estimates.

“It was a solid fourth-quarter, nicely ahead of consensus,” Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Chris Rigg said. “I don’t think the results will be particularly surprising to the investment community.”

Membership increased to about 34.6 million, up 5 percent. The company reported gains in its Medicare plans for the elderly and Medicaid plans for low-income Americans, as well as in its commercial plans serving employers.

“Enrollment growth remained strong, across the board,” Leerink Swann analyst Jason Gurda said.