Analysts say insurer earnings may dodge flu impact

The Associated Press
Associated Press

Health insurer balance sheets for the fourth quarter will largely remain immune from the strong flu season sweeping the country, according to analysts who cover the sector.

Incidents of flu in the final quarter of 2012 reached their highest level since 2009 and were 51 percent higher than the last quarter of 2011, Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Chris Rigg said in a Friday morning research note.

That can stir investor worry about lower profitability because insurers haven't set aside enough money to cover an influx of medical claims, especially from expensive hospitalization cases.

But Rigg also noted that the flu has a limited impact — if any — on long-term results.

"We see no reason to hit the panic button if a given concern posts (earnings per share) below expectations due to the flu," Rigg said.

The analyst said insurers like Aetna Inc., Cigna Corp., UnitedHealth Group Inc. and WellPoint Inc. should meet fourth quarter expectations or slightly exceed them. UnitedHealth becomes the first insurer to report fourth-quarter and full-year results on Jan. 17.

The picture's a little murkier for WellCare Health Plans Inc. and Centene Corp. Those insurers have customer concentrations in the Southeast, where flu activity was highest in the fourth quarter.

BMO Capital analyst Dave Shove said in a separate note that incidences of the flu reported in the final weeks of the fourth quarter fell far below 2009 levels, and that supports his belief that insurers have enough in reserve to cover claims. He also noted that hospitalizations have stayed within normal rates.

Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini said earlier this week his company expects to spend between $40 million and $50 million on flu-related claims this season, which is nowhere near the $100 million it spent in the swine flu season of 2009.

Health insurer stocks fell mostly in line with the broader market's slight decrease Friday morning. Aetna dropped 37 cents to $45.39, Cigna was down 6 cents to $55.56, UnitedHealth fell 62 cents to $52.49, WellPoint was down 47 cents to $61.77 WellCare dropped 63 cents to $46.27, and Centene fell 93 cents, or 2.2 percent, to $40.96.