WellPoint raises full-year view as profit beats

NEW YORK (Reuters) - WellPoint Inc <WLP.N> posted a quarterly profit well above analyst estimates, helped by health plan gains and lower-than-expected medical costs, and the insurer raised its full-year earnings outlook.

The strong results on Wednesday from the largest U.S. health insurer by membership came after rivals UnitedHealth Group Inc <UNH.N> and Humana Inc <HUM.N> also increased their full-year forecasts in the past week in the latest signs of improving prospects for the industry.

WellPoint's first-quarter net income rose to $926.6 million, or $2.44 per share, from $876.8 million, or $1.96 per share, a year earlier.

Excluding items, earnings of $2.35 per share were 48 cents above the analysts' average estimate, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue fell 1.3 percent to $14.65 billion. Analysts looked for $14.57 billion.

Membership totaled nearly 34.2 million at the end of March, up 1.1 percent. It was up 2.6 percent from the end of 2010, driven by growth in national plans.

WellPoint projected full-year earnings of "at least" $6.70 per share, up from its expectation given in January of at least $6.30.

Through Tuesday, WellPoint shares have risen 28 percent this year. Health insurer stocks have outperformed the broader market in 2011 as investors become more comfortable with the last year's U.S. healthcare overhaul.

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)