Health insurer Aetna (AET) easily beat Wall Street forecasts in the third quarter despite narrowing its profit, as medical claim costs declined while consumers postponed doctor visits amid renewed economic concerns.

Medical costs sector-wide have been down as Americans delay doctors appointments and costly procedures amid financial turmoil. Many of those people have lost jobs and are without health insurance, while others struggle to pay rising co-payments.

The Hartford, Conn.-based company posted net income of $490.4 million, or $1.30 a share, compared with $497.6 million, or $1.19 a share, in the same quarter last year. The results were sharply ahead of average analyst estimates polled by Thomson Reuters of $1.15 a share.

Revenue for the three months ended Sept. 30 was $8.4 billion, down 1% from $8.46 billion a year ago, but beating the Street’s view of $8.3 billion.

The unexpected results were driven by strong performance across all of Aetna’s product lines, lower medical costs and higher pricing, partially offset by lower commercial insured membership. Total membership fell 1.6% to 18.23 million.

“These results are a continuation of our strong operating performance in the first and second quarters, driven largely by lower-than-projected utilization, our pricing discipline and our medical cost management strategies,” Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini said in a statement. 

The company’s Medicare business posted a strong quarter and Bertolini said the division is slated to gain even more momentum with the completion of the Genworth Medicare Supplement acquisition and its recent launch of a co-branded CVS Part D Plan.

Aetna anticipates 2011 earnings, excluding items, of $5.00 a share, up sharply from its forecast last month between $4.60 and $4.70 a share. While their forecasts will likely be updated, analysts are currently looking for a fiscal profit of $4.81.

Despite its current optimism, the insurer expects earnings will continue to decline in 2012 as medical costs increase.

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