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Hospital Shares Quieter After Sell-Off, Down From Last Week

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES A recent hospital sector selloff appears to have ended, although stocks haven't rallied much as investors apparently nurse concerns about patient volume trends and lawmakers' failure to approve several measures considered helpful to the industry. Hospital shares were mixed around noon Tuesday, with some down slightly and others up 1% to 2%, remaining down from their levels a week earlier. The stocks dipped significantly Monday, although they had been slipping since the middle of last week. The Standard & Poor's 500 health-care facilities index earlier in the day was down 8.5% over the past week, with Community Health Systems Inc. (CYH) off 10.8%, Health Management Associates Inc. (HMA) down 10.4%, Tenet Healthcare Corp. (THC) down 8.5%, LifePoint Hospitals Inc. (LPNT) down 6.6% and Universal Health Services Inc. (UHS) down 6.2%. Shares traded below their average long-term valuations for price to projected earnings for the next 12 months. Fueling investor uneasiness in part was Congress's recent failure to approve an extension through June 2011 of increased federal Medicaid matching subsidies to states, currently set to expire at the end of this year. Hospital investors also were looking for lawmakers to extend a federal subsidy for Cobra insurance for those who lose their jobs, and to fix a 21% Medicare fee cut for physicians. "We believe that the selloff of the hospitals is overdone," Wells Fargo analyst Gary Lieberman said. He expects Congress to pass the Medicare physician fee fix before the July 4 recess and to extend the increased Medicaid funding near the end of the year. Investors also may be concerned over recent industry and analyst remarks indicating sluggish second-quarter hospital volumes. A Deutsche Bank survey released last month indicated volumes appeared to remain weak early in the quarter. Lieberman, though, noted that trends "have not been robust for most hospital operators for at least the past year. Despite this, most companies have been able to post strong results due in part of reduced costs. ... We think these favorable trends remain in place and that the likelihood for any significant earnings misses in 2Q10 is low." Last week, Fitch said credit profiles for for-profit hospital operators improved in the first quarter, in spite of "persistent patient utilization headwinds" created by a strained economy, weak seasonal flu activity and severe weather. The ratings agency cited hospitals' conservative operating and balance sheet adjustments of the past 12 to 18 months. Fitch has a modestly positive near-term operating outlook for the sector. -By Dinah Wisenberg Brin, Dow Jones Newswires 215-656-8285; dinah.brin@dowjones.com

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