After seeing what happened when companies like UnitedHealth (NYSE:UNH), Aetna (NYSE:AET), and Coventry (NYSE:CVH) reported their earnings, investors with big positions in CIGNA (NYSE:CI) might be forgiven if they had a hard time getting to sleep last night. Fortunately for them, CIGNA managed to exceed expectations, and the market was more than willing to reward the stock on Wednesday morning.

This may seem petty, but I must take exception to CIGNA management categorizing the quarter as "strong". In my book, it was more like "less bad." Revenue was flat (with premiums and fees actually down a bit), and adjusted income from operations was up only 4%. Granted, that's a lot better than flat or down, but it doesn't quite meet my standard for strong.

I found one other detail a little strange. The company reported that net investment income was down 10% this quarter. Given that reinsurance companies like Endurance Specialty (NYSE:ENH) have been posting pretty high investment income growth, that got my attention. Then again, a health insurance company is not a reinsurance company, so maybe there's really nothing more to it.

All in all, CIGNA's performance offered several positive takeaways. Although the medical loss ratio in the guaranteed cost business ticked up slightly on a sequential basis, management sounds pretty confident about lower costs in the back half of the year. So confident, in fact, that it cut its expectation for medical cost growth to a range of 7% to 7.5% -- pretty good, when costs for some other companies in the sector seem to be rising more quickly.

I mentioned in an earlier piece that CIGNA could be a more interesting defensive name if the industry as a whole guessed wrong about pricing and cost trends. Is that happening now? I don't know yet, but it's worth thinking about.

CIGNA management has certainly made some mistakes in the past, but it seems to be recovering from them, and investors can hope that management is wiser for the experience. While I can't muster rousing enthusiasm for the stock, I suppose it could still yet prove to be a value idea in this once-popular sector.

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UnitedHealth is a recommendation of both Motley Fool Inside Value and Stock Advisor . Endurance Specialty is an Inside Value recommendation. Coventry is a Stock Advisor pick. Check out our entire suite of newsletters by clicking here.

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).