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US Health Insurers Enter Earnings Season With Changed Climate

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES UnitedHealth Group Inc. (UNH) and its peers seem to face a more temperate political climate than anticipated as the health insurer opens the industry's earnings-reporting season Thursday. Following Republican Scott Brown's upset victory in the Massachusetts special U.S. Senate election Tuesday, investors are likely to be at least as focused on UnitedHealth's thoughts on the health-care reform outlook and other trends for this and future years as on how the company performed in the fourth quarter of 2009. UnitedHealth is the largest U.S. managed-care company by revenue and is considered an industry bellwether. "We anticipate that management will maintain its conservative tone near-term, but we have to believe that, internally, management is at least considering the possibility of operating in a different regulatory environment than it had envisioned just [Tuesday]," Stifel Nicolaus analyst Thomas Carroll said. "The election of Scott Brown threatens existing health-reform efforts," Carroll said, although he believes Democrats are unlikely to allow a complete collapse of overhaul efforts. Brown's victory means Democrats lose their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate on health-care legislation, and it is unclear what lawmakers will do now that the anti-overhaul Republican is headed to Washington. Lawmakers have debated the health-care issue for months, and negotiators have been working on a compromise bill between the versions passed by the House and the Senate. While Democrats could find a way to rush through final legislation before Brown is seated, some analysts, citing a likely voter backlash, doubted that would happen, predicting instead a more scaled-down bill to expand coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. Current legislation is seen as risky for large, diversified health insurers, although investors appeared to accept the Senate version, which excludes the public health-plan option that the industry vigorously opposed. The issue of health reform "overshadows everything else" during the upcoming earnings season, said Wells Fargo analyst Matt Perry. He said he doesn't expect big fourth-quarter beats or misses, or 2010 forecasts that diverge much from the consensus Street view. "Passing a health-care reform bill seemed like a foregone conclusion until the Massachusetts Senate race became competitive," Perry said. "With a victory by the Republican candidate Brown, passing a bill has become more complicated but still possible." Perry said he considers managed-care valuations close to fair value, with the sector recently trading at 11.5 times estimated 2010 per-share earnings, its highest valuation since February 2008. Should an overhaul bill pass in the next month, the group should command a valuation of 10 to 12 times estimated 2010 EPS, to reflect greater risks, while the multiple without an overhaul should be 11 to 13, compared to a long-term average of 14, he said. Earnings do matter, even though reform headlines are dominant now, Goldman Sachs analyst Matthew Borsch said, maintaining an attractive view on the managed-care industry. "Developments on health reform are likely to overshadow earnings in driving the stocks, particularly given the GOP victory," he said. "Meanwhile, the 4Q focus will be more on the outlook for industry trends than earnings results themselves." Investors will look to see whether companies remain confident in their pricing discipline and their outlooks for stabilization of commercial enrollment, as well as Medicare Advantage results, given lower 2010 reimbursement. Medicaid-oriented managed-care companies, meanwhile, are likely to face more uncertainty now because of the new politics surrounding the health-care overhaul debate. Companies such as Amerigroup Corp. (AGP), Molina Healthcare Inc. (MOH) and Centene Corp. (CNC) are seen as benefiting from an expansion of Medicaid under current legislation, and all traded lower Wednesday, while large, diversified health insurers were mixed following a rally Tuesday. -By Dinah Wisenberg Brin, Dow Jones Newswires; 215-656-8285;

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