UnitedHealth 1Q profit soars as ACA business shrinks

The Associated Press
FILE - This Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, file photo, shows part of the UnitedHealth Group, Inc. campus in Minnetonka, Minn. UnitedHealth Group Inc. reports financial results Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

UnitedHealth's first-quarter profit soared 35 percent as the nation's biggest health insurer slashed participation in Affordable Care Act exchanges but grew just about every other part of its business.

The insurer also hiked its 2017 earnings forecast on Tuesday, and company shares started climbing shortly after it detailed results.

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans and the state- and federally funded Medicaid coverage both swelled for UnitedHealth, which also continued to grow an Optum segment that sells several services outside the company's core health insurance.

Operating earnings from that insurance businesses climbed 15 percent to $2.1 billion, even though UnitedHealth's individual enrollment plunged as it withdrew from nearly all the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges. The insurer pulls in most of its enrollment from group insurance coverage offered through employers.

UnitedHealth had warned last year that it expected to lose more than $800 million on individual coverage sold through the Affordable Care Act's exchanges, and the insurer scaled back its participation on those exchanges this year to three states after rapidly expanding to 34.

Several other major insurers like Aetna Inc. and Humana Inc. also have pared participation after booking deep losses on the exchanges, which face an uncertain future as Republicans in Congress mull another attempt at repealing and replacing the federal law.

UnitedHealth is a small player in the exchanges, which are dominated by Blue Cross-Blue Shield-branded plans. The company gave no insight Tuesday into whether it will remain on the exchanges next year, but company officials did say they are still working with policy makers to improve the markets.

CEO Stephen Hemsley also pushed for the permanent repeal of a health insurance tax that was deferred this year. He noted that it will affect coverage affordability.

Outside health insurance, UnitedHealth saw operating earnings climb nearly 16 percent to $1.3 billion from its Optum segment. That business provides pharmacy benefits management and technology services and also operates clinics and doctor's offices. Earlier this year, UnitedHealth stocked that segment with a $2.3 billion purchase of Surgical Care Affiliates, which runs surgery centers.

Overall, the company earned $2.17 billion in the first quarter on $48.72 billion in total revenue. Adjusted results came to $2.37 per share.

Analysts forecast earnings of $2.17 per share on $48.33 billion in revenue.

UnitedHealth now expects adjusted 2017 earnings of between $9.65 and $9.85 per share after predicting $9.30 to $9.60 per share last fall.

Analysts polled by FactSet expect earnings of $9.50 per share.

Shares of UnitedHealth, a component of the Dow Jones industrial average, climbed $1.34 to $168.53 Tuesday morning, as broader indexes slipped.

UnitedHealth is the first health insurer to announce earnings every quarter, and many analysts and investors see it as a bellwether for other insurers.