UnitedHealth Climbs on Strong Earnings, Brighter Outlook

By Markets Fool.com

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Given the upheaval that the healthcare industry has seen in recent years, many investors expected insurance company UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) to struggle in charting a course through new laws and regulations to maintain its profitability. Yet UnitedHealth has proven immensely successful in its ability to adapt to changing conditions, and coming into Tuesday's third-quarter financial report, UnitedHealth investors fully expected the insurer to keep producing the impressive growth that they had seen in the past. Even with a high bar to clear, UnitedHealth gave most investors exactly what they wanted to see -- excellent financial numbers and an optimistic future outlook. Let's take a closer look at UnitedHealth's latest results and what they mean for shareholders.

UnitedHealth keeps its momentum

UnitedHealth's third-quarter results exceeded what most investors had expected to see from the insurance company. Revenue climbed almost 12% to $46.3 billion, which was about $200 million higher than the consensus forecast among those following the stock. Net income climbed to $1.97 billion, and after making customary tweaks to the GAAP numbers, adjusted earnings of $2.17 per share compared well to the $2.08 per share that most investors anticipated.

The most interesting aspect of UnitedHealth's financials is how the contributions from its two main segments balanced out this quarter to a much greater extent than we've seen in the recent past. Revenue from the core UnitedHealthcare insurance unit rose 13%, which actually exceeded the 9% growth rate that Optum posted during the quarter. The OptumRx pharmacy benefit management unit retained its status as the largest subsegment in the company, but growth slowed to just 6%. Nevertheless, in terms of bottom-line impact, Optum still maintained its dominance, growing its operating earnings at more than twice the pace that the UnitedHealthcare business did.

UnitedHealthcare saw solid results from all four of its subsegments in its insurance business. The biggest percentage gains came from the global division, which has bounced back from sales pressure in past quarters to make an increasingly meaningful contribution to the overall business. However, gains were fairly consistent across the board with double-digit percentage increases. Over the past year, UnitedHealth has grown its member counts by 955,000 in the employer and individual division, 375,000 in the Medicare Advantage business, 235,000 in Medicare supplemental coverage, and 485,000 more Medicaid participants.

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UnitedHealth CEO Stephen Hemsley once again kept his comments short. "Our growth indicators are positive as we conclude 2016, and we expect to be well positioned in 2017 to better serve consumers and deliver more value to the health system overall," Hemsley said.

What's ahead for UnitedHealth?

Of even more value to investors is the fact that UnitedHealth upgraded its guidance for the remainder of the year, marking the latest in a long sequence of increasingly optimistic outlooks. UnitedHealth now expects to finish the year with roughly $8 per share in adjusted earnings, which is well above the high end of its previous range of between $7.80 and $7.95 per share. With solid results across the board and even the global business starting to pick up, UnitedHealth appears to be gaining momentum in a way that could well accelerate into 2017.

Of course, the one hiccup that investors can't account for fully right now is the potential fallout from the U.S. presidential election in November. Both candidates have strong views on healthcare, and some foresee that changes in the makeup of Congress could also have a key role to play in determining not only the direction of future healthcare reforms but also the speed with which they get implemented. UnitedHealth has done well in navigating the rapidly changing environment in the industry, but calls for more aggressive reforms could create new challenges.

Nevertheless, UnitedHealth shareholders celebrated the good news, sending the stock up more than 3% in pre-market trading following the announcement. In the absence of another monumental shift in healthcare policy, UnitedHealth should be able to follow its strategic plan successfully and keep finding new avenues for growth in the near future.

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Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends UnitedHealth Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.