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Aetna's 1st-quarter profit jumps 36 per cent, health insurer also hikes 2014 earnings forecast

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Aetna's first-quarter net income soared 36 per cent, fueled by gains from a multi-billion-dollar acquisition, and the health insurer hiked its 2014 earnings forecast above Wall Street estimates.

Its results breezed past analysts' expectations, and Aetna shares jumped more than 5 per cent Thursday after it detailed a starkly different quarter compared with competitor UnitedHealth Group, which dragged down other health insurance stocks last week after it said first quarter earnings fell 8 per cent.

Aetna completed a $6.9 billion acquisition of fellow insurer Coventry Health Care last May, and it said Thursday that deal was the main factor behind its growth in this year's first quarter. The Hartford, Conn., insurer's medical enrolment swelled about 24 per cent in the quarter to 22.7 million people versus last year.

Coventry serves customers in two markets primed for growth. It administers Medicaid, the state and federally funded program that covers the needy and disabled people, and it offers Medicare Advantage plans. Those are subsidized versions of the federal government's Medicare program for the elderly and also disabled people.

Aetna Inc. reaped large, year-over-year gains in both those categories during the quarter. It also added another 230,000 paying customers through public insurance exchanges that debuted this year, courtesy of the health care overhaul. The federal law set up state-based exchanges on which customers can shop for coverage with help from income-based tax credits.

Aetna expects to add about 450,000 paying customers this year through the exchanges, and company officials said the risk of that business appears to be manageable so far, although they cautioned that they still don't have a good sense for what types of claims these customers will generate.

"It has been kind of in the neighbourhood of our expectations," Chief Financial Officer Shawn Guertin said, adding that the company still expects a "modest loss" this year from its exchange coverage, a small slice of its overall business.

Overall, Aetna earned $665.5 million, or $1.82 per share, in the first quarter. That's up from $490.1 million, or $1.48 per share, a year earlier.

Adjusted earnings totalled $1.98 per share, not counting one-time items.

Analysts forecast earnings of $1.53 per share, according to FactSet.

Operating revenue excluding capital gains totalled $13.97 billion. Analysts expected about $13.6 billion.

Aetna now expects 2014 adjusted earnings of between $6.35 and $6.55 per share, which is more than the average analyst expectation of $6.31 per share.

Shares of several health insurers dipped last week after UnitedHealth Group Inc. also warned that it saw some tough price competition in several markets, including New York. Aetna said Thursday it hasn't seen the same thing. Trends in the sector should become clear as other major insurers like the Blue Cross Blue Shield provider WellPoint Inc. report results in the next couple weeks.

Aetna shares climbed $3.74, or 5.4 per cent, to $72.65 in midday trading, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index rose slightly. UnitedHealth and WellPoint shares both advanced more than 2 per cent.

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