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UnitedHealth Has Healthy Ambitions for 2020 and Beyond

By Dan Caplinger - Oct 15, 2019 at 10:49AM

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Even amid concerns about healthcare reform prospects, the Dow component boosted its outlook again.

Healthcare companies across the industry have faced the difficult prospect of trying to anticipate changes from a hostile environment in Washington. Many investors have concluded that companies like UnitedHealth Group (UNH -0.20%) don't have enough certainty on the regulatory front to make firm plans toward growing their operations for the long run, as a change in policy could derail strategic plans and force a quick and painful course correction.

Yet UnitedHealth has worked hard at forging a path that can handle whatever lawmakers throw at the healthcare giant. Coming into Tuesday's third-quarter financial report, UnitedHealth investors expected that the company would be able to keep using its multifaceted business to generate growth in key areas. That's exactly what it did, and there's plenty of reason for optimism ahead.

Growth despite politics

UnitedHealth's third-quarter results kept telling the story of how good execution can lead to great results. Revenue climbed nearly 7% to $60.4 billion, and that was roughly $600 million better than most of those following the company were expecting. Net income came in at $3.54 billion, up 11% from year-ago levels. After accounting for some one-time items, adjusted earnings of $3.88 per share topped the consensus forecast among investors by $0.13 per share.

As we've seen often in the past, the company's Optum segment was the big winner within UnitedHealth Group. Segment revenue was up 13% year over year, and bottom-line growth accelerated, sending segment operating earnings higher by more than 16% over the same period. Wellness and health management services at the OptumHealth division saw amazing revenue growth of 34%, as the company boasted a 30% rise in revenue per consumer coming from expanded local care offerings and value-based care arrangements. The OptumInsight data analytics business enjoyed a 16% increase in segment sales as backlogs ballooned to $19 billion, and even the OptumRx pharmacy benefit business saw its top line climb 6%.

OptumCare logo of colored square along with text.

Image source: UnitedHealth Group.

The healthcare coverage portion of UnitedHealth's business saw more pedestrian results. Revenue rose almost 5% for the UnitedHealthcare segment, with operating earnings inching higher by 4%. UnitedHealth reported a membership increase of 415,000, slowing from growth rates in recent quarters. The biggest gains for UnitedHealthcare came from its Medicare and retirement division, while the community and state segment saw membership declines as a result of company strategic decisions and moves from various state and local government entities. UnitedHealthcare's global division saw lackluster sales growth of 3.6% from year-ago levels.

CEO David Wichmann was pleased with the company's results. "Optum and UnitedHealthcare are driving value for our customers," Wichmann said, "creating momentum to finish the year strongly and move into 2020 with an intense focus on accelerating the growth of our business." The CEO looked to customer satisfaction, value, and quality as key ingredients to the company's future success.

A brighter outlook for UnitedHealth

UnitedHealth has a lot of confidence in how things are likely to play out. The company increased its earnings outlook for the remainder of the year, and it now expects adjusted earnings of $14.90 to $15 per share for the full 2019 year. That's higher by $0.10 to $0.20 per share from its previous guidance range.

Shareholders have seen the impact of UnitedHealth's financial strength in a couple of ways. The healthcare giant's 20% dividend hike earlier this year has increased the amount of income that all of its investors receive from the company. At the same time, UnitedHealth said it spent another $600 million on stock buybacks during the third quarter, repurchasing about 2.6 million shares.

UnitedHealth's investors liked what they saw in the report, and the stock soared 6% on Tuesday morning following the announcement. There's plenty of uncertainty in the healthcare arena generally, but few seem concerned about UnitedHealth, given how it's been able to set a clear strategic direction and follow it even in the face of potential challenges down the road.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends UnitedHealth Group. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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