Insurer Anthem unveils better-than-expected 2019 forecast

Indianapolis-based Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurer Anthem Inc. topped fourth-quarter earnings expectations and debuted a better-than-expected 2019 forecast, helped by an early start for its prescription drug coverage business.

Shares of the nation's second-largest health insurer soared after Anthem said it expected adjusted earnings in the new year to be better than $19 per share. That's about 8 percent higher than the average analyst forecast of $17.61 per share, according to FactSet.

Anthem said the outlook reflects an accelerated launch for its IngenioRx pharmacy benefit management business, which the company is running with help from CVS Health Corp.

The insurer had announced plans to create IngenioRx in 2017 after its relationship with another pharmacy benefits manager, Express Scripts, soured. Pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, run prescription drug plans for employers, government agencies and insurers, among other clients. They use their large purchasing power to negotiate prices and shape formularies or lists of covered drugs.

Anthem initially said its PBM would start in 2020. But the insurer said Wednesday that it will actually start moving customers over to the new business in this year's second quarter.

The insurer is ending its deal with Express Scripts, which had managed Anthem's prescription business for several years, on March 1 due to that company's recently completed acquisition by another insurer, Cigna Corp.

The accelerated launch of the new business should quell "skeptical bears" about Anthem's move back into the prescription drugs business, which it had left in 2009, Leerink analyst Ana Gupte said in a research note.

Anthem runs Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in several states, including big markets like California, New York and Ohio. It covers nearly 40 million people, including those who receive benefits from the government-run Medicaid and Medicare programs.

In the recently completed fourth quarter, Anthem saw its profit fall 66 percent, to $424 million, compared to the final quarter of 2017, when Anthem and other companies recorded a big benefit from corporate tax cuts.

Operating revenue, which excludes things like investment income, grew nearly 4 percent, to $23.3 billion, in the most recent quarter, and earnings adjusted for one-time items totaled $2.44 per share.

Analysts expected, on average, earnings of $2.20 per share on $23.36 billion in revenue, according to Zacks Investment Research.

Shares of Anthem jumped 8 percent, or $21.54, to $294.25 per share, in premarket trading Wednesday.

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