LifePoint's Vital Signs Fall

An aging U.S. population may bode well for health-care stocks in the future, but hospital operator LifePoint (Nasdaq: LPNT  ) is down 20% today. The company lowered earnings estimates for the just-completed fourth quarter and said that analyst estimates for 2006 are too high. Is this a value opportunity, or a well-deserved markdown?

The company originally forecast earnings for Q4 2005 between $0.61 and $0.65 per share. Now the company says that lower volumes, start-up costs, slow ramp-ups for new hospitals, bad debt, physicians, and a difficult state and federal reimbursement environment have combined to clobber its earlier estimate. After listening to the conference call, this observer wondered what, exactly, was going right.

LifePoint also trimmed back 2006 expectations. The 18 analysts who follow the company had projected earnings of $2.70 to $3.01 for this year. Surprise! The company expects to see earnings of $2.18 to $2.35 a share instead. LifePoint did say that its projections did not include hospitals it expects to acquire this quarter from HCA (NYSE: HCA  ) , which would have total revenue of up to $297 million and EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) of up to $27 million. Even those numbers won't help ease the disappointment of the company's lower 2006 numbers.

Today, shares of competitors Health Management Associates (NYSE: HMA  ) and Community Health Systems (NYSE: CYH  ) dropped 3.1% and 2.7%, respectively. Neither has warned of similar problems. In fact, Health Management was optimistic about 2006 when it released its objectives for the year last November.

Using the low end of 2006 guidance, LifePoint is selling for 13.6 times earnings. That would be dirt cheap for a company that was expected to grow earnings by an annual 15% before today's mishap. But with so many prominent problems, I anticipate that it will take time for this company to get back on track.

Conservative investors should step aside and watch from the sidelines. Aggressive investors might want to take a closer look at this stock, since competitors Health Management and Community Health look to be trading at a relative premium. While LifePoint's problems are real enough, the company should have had ample opportunity to weigh them before today's announcement (including touchy reimbursement issues). If earnings are close to what is now projected, long-term investors will be rewarded with a value-priced stock in a sector with apparently excellent long-term growth prospects.

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Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own any shares in the companies mentioned. Clickhereto see The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.

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