Dividend payers deserve a berth in any long-term stock portfolio. But seemingly attractive dividend yields are not always as fetching as they may appear. Let's see which companies in the health-care plan industry offer the most promising dividends.

Yields and growth rates and payout ratios, oh my!
Before we get to those companies, though, you should understand just why you'd want to own dividend payers. These stocks can contribute a huge chunk of growth to your portfolio in good times, and bolster it during market downturns.

As my colleague Matt Koppenheffer has noted: "Between 2000 and 2009, the average dividend-adjusted return on stocks with market caps above $5 billion and a trailing yield of 2.5% or better was a whopping 114%. Compare that to a 19% drop for the S&P 500."

When hunting for promising dividend payers, unsophisticated investors will often just look for the highest yields they can find. While these stocks will indeed pay out the most, the yield figures apply only for the current year. Extremely steep dividend yields can be precarious, and even solid ones are vulnerable to dividend cuts.

When evaluating a company's attractiveness in terms of its dividend, it's important to examine at least three factors:

  1. The current yield
  2. The dividend growth
  3. The payout ratio

If a company has a middling dividend yield, but a history of increasing its payment substantially from year to year, it deserves extra consideration. A $3 dividend can become $7.80 in 10 years, if it grows at 10% annually. (It will top $20 after 20 years.) Thus, a 3% yield today may be more attractive than a 4% one, if the 3% company is rapidly increasing that dividend.

Next, consider the company's payout ratio, which reflects what percentage of income the company is spending on its dividend. In general, the lower the number, the better. A low payout ratio means there's plenty of room for generous dividend increases. It also means that much of the company's income remains in its hands, giving it a lot of flexibility. That money can fund the business's expansion, pay off debt, buy back shares, or even buy other companies. A steep payout ratio reflects little flexibility for the company, less room for dividend growth, and a stronger chance that if the company falls on hard times, it will have to reduce its dividend.

Peering into health-care plans
Below, I've compiled some of the major dividend-paying players in the health-care plan industry (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:

Company

Recent Yield

5-Year Avg. Annual Div. Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

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Aetna (NYSE: AET) 1.4% 71.9% 14% Add
WellPoint (NYSE: WLP) 1.3% New dividend 14% Add
Humana (NYSE: HUM) 1.2% New dividend 15% Add
UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH) 1% 67.6% 12% Add
CIGNA (NYSE: CI) 0.1% 4.5% 1% Add

Data: Motley Fool CAPS.

None of these companies has a very high dividend yield. Yet except for Cigna, all of these companies have either started paying or dramatically increased their dividends recently. All of them have reasonable payout ratios, leaving room for further growth.

You may also notice, that some notable players in the industry, such as Express Scripts (NYSE: ESRX) and Magellan Health Services (Nasdaq: MGLN), aren't on the list. That's because smaller, fast-growing companies such as Magellan often prefer to plow any excess cash into further growth, rather than paying it out to shareholders. Express Scripts is a rather large company, but it's growing briskly as well.

Just right
As I see it, UnitedHealth and Aetna sport the most attractive combination of dividend traits, offering some income now and a good chance of strong dividend growth in the future. Their current yields leave a lot to be desired, though, so you might want to look in greener pastures, such as packaged consumer goods or oil refining.

Of course, as with all stocks, you'll want to look into more than just a company's dividend situation before making a purchase decision. Still, these stocks' compelling dividends make them great places to start your search, particularly if you're excited by the prospects for this industry.

Do your portfolio a favor. Don't ignore the growth you can gain from powerful dividend payers.

To get more ideas for great dividend-paying stocks, read about "13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today."

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian holds no position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of UnitedHealth Group. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint and creating a diagonal call position in UnitedHealth Group. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.