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WellPoint profit better than analyst estimates

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WellPoint Inc.’s profit slipped in the fourth-quarter but easily beat the expectations of Wall Street.

The Indianapolis-based health insurer earned $548.8 million, or $1.40 per share, in the three months ended Dec. 31. In the same quarter of 2009, WellPoint reported profit of $2.7 billion—of which $2.2 billion came from the one-time sale of its pharmacy subsidiary, NextRx.

Excluding that sale and other one-time charges, WellPoint’s profit fell 2 percent to $524.7 million from $536 million in the fourth quarter of 2009.

On that same basis, WellPoint earned $1.33 per share in the fourth-quarter, up from $1.16 in the same quarter a year before. Wall Street analysts were expecting $1.22, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters.

WellPoint’s per-share profit increased sharply because the company has been buying back shares aggressively in the past year, reducing its common stock by nearly 15 percent.

Fourth-quarter revenue fell 23 percent to $14.65 billion absent the boost from the previous year's pharmacy sale. But even its operating revenue suffered, dropping 4 percent to $14.42 billion.

That still bested analysts’ average expectations of $14.27 billion.

For the year, WellPoint earned $2.9 billion in profit, or $6.94 per share, on revenue of $58.8 billion. The comapny expects 2011 profit to fall to $6.30 per share.

“We exceeded our goals in many areas of the company this year and provided a significant return of capital to our shareholders following the sale of NextRx," WellPoint CEO Angela Braly said in a prepared statement. “We also created a new strategy and implemented organizational changes that enhance our ability to provide affordable and valuable products to our customers and position us to be a long-run winner in the changing health care marketplace.”

WellPoint ended the year with 33.3 million people insured by its health plans, a drop of nearly 350,000 from a year ago. WellPoint’s insurance plan enrollment has been hurt by layoffs at its client companies.

However, in one encouraging development, the number of people covered by small- to mid-size employers, which WellPoint calls its local group, stopped sliding and actually increased in the fourth quarter by 45,000 people, to a total of 15.2 million.

WellPoint benefited from cost-conscious Americans deferring medical treatment, according to Bloomberg News, citing a trend that reduced expenses for all health insurers in the past two years. A slow start to the 2010-2011 flu season also led to lower use of care, the company said. The savings were limited because WellPoint was forced to accept lower rate increases than it proposed in California and the insurer’s commercial enrollment has declined, analyst Jason Gurda told Bloomberg.

“The whole managed-care group has been helped by low-cost trends, but WellPoint has benefited less than its peers” because of California and the falling enrollment, Gurda, an analyst with Boston-based Leerink Swann & Co., told Bloomberg before the results were released.

WellPoint shares rose 71 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $61.70 Tuesday in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The stock has dropped 4.6 percent since President Barack Obama signed the health overhaul into law on March 30.

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