Health insurer Anthem's profit, 2018 forecast top estimates


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Jan 31 (Reuters) - Anthem Inc reported a higher-than-expected quarterly profit on Wednesday and the health insurer forecast 2018 earnings above Wall Street estimates, as it added more members and assumed benefits from recent U.S. tax changes.

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Anthem, which also raised its quarterly dividend by 7.1 percent to 75 cents per share, said it expects 2018 adjusted earnings to be greater than $15 per share.

Analysts were expecting earnings of $14.07, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The company said its 2018 forecast includes a net benefit from corporate tax reform of about $2 per share.

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Evercore ISI analysts noted that the 2018 guidance will be viewed as "good enough" and a likely conservative starting point, and said Anthem's stock could also see some recovery from Tuesday's Amazon-induced sell-off. Inc, Berkshire Hathaway Inc and JPMorgan Chase & Co said they would form a company to cut health costs for hundreds of thousands of their employees, setting up a major challenge to an inefficient U.S. healthcare system.

Anthem said net income rose to $1.23 billion, or $4.67 per share, in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, from $368.4 million, or $1.37 per share, a year earlier.

Excluding items, the insurer earned $1.29 per share, ahead of analysts' expectation of $1.27.

The company, which recorded a one-time benefit of $1.1 billion due to the new U.S. tax law, said enrollment totaled about 40.2 million members at the end of the quarter, an increase of 0.8 percent.

Anthem's benefit expense ratio rose to 88.6 percent from 87.2 percent in the year-ago period. The metric measures an insurer's expenditure on claims against the premiums it earns.

Total operating revenue rose 4.5 percent to $22.45 billion, reflecting premium rate increases, and came in above analysts' estimate of $22.25 billion.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Martina D'Couto)

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