2011 was a good year for the health care sector.
According to data from S&P Capital IQ, the group was one of only two sectors out of 10 major categories within the S&P 1200 global index to deliver positive returns on both a price and total return (including dividends etc.) basis, rising 8 percent and 11.2 percent. The other was consumer staples.
The slate gets wiped clean in a few days, however, and 2012 brings a whole new set of challenges. One of the biggest of those is the Supreme Court case examining President Obama's health care plan.
Oral arguments in the case are expected to be heard in March with a decision seen coming toward the end of June. The main issue for the court is the portion of the law that states individuals must be covered by 2014 or face a penalty.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law in March 2010. Among the law's provisions are insurance companies needing to justify rate increases of 10 percent or more, allowing people under 26 years of age to stay on their parents' health care plans, and a patient's bill of rights.
Wells Fargo thinks the mandate that individuals must have insurance looks vulnerable, pinpointing Justice Anthony Kennedy as possessing a "key swing vote" in a recent research note, and the firm anticipates he will deem the mandate "unconstitutional" and rule to separate it from the rest of the legislation.
The firm estimates there is a "very small probability" the Supreme Court will overturn the legislation completely or specifically find the Medicaid portion of the law unconstitutional, and sees the overall risk to health insurers as limited.
"[W]e believe the states or the federal government would likely fix any damage this ruling might cause to the insurance exchanges and the individual market before the market changes occur in 2014," Wells Fargo said.
Another wild card for 2012 is the presidential election in November with Wells Fargo raising the possibility that ""the expected Medicaid expansion in 2014 could be defunded after the November elections."
Here are three health care stocks that are analysts think highly of headed into next year.
The majority of Wall Street is bullish UnitedHealth Group with 19 of the 24 analysts covering the stock at either strong buy (9) or buy (10), and the median 12-month price target sitting at $58, according to Thomson Reuters data. That implies potential upside of 13 percent from Tuesday's close at $51.35.
The company is the strongest large-cap recommendation of Stifel Nicolaus analyst Tom Carroll, who says the Minnetonka, Minn.-based health care services company is attractive because it's diversifying away from just health insurance.
UnitedHealth has beaten Wall Street's earnings expectations in the first three quarters of this past fiscal year, delivering an average upside surprise of nearly 22 percent. The company is slated to report its fiscal fourth-quarter results on Jan. 19 with the average analysts' estimate calling for a profit of $1.02 a share in the December-ending period on revenue of $25.69 billion.
TheStreet Ratings rates UnitedHealth Group at A+ and considers the stock a buy with a $63.68 price target.
CVS Caremark also comes highly recommended with 23 of the 26 analysts covering the stock at either strong buy (7) and buy (16) and the 12-month median price target of $45 implying potential upside of 9.8 percent from Tuesday's close at $41.01.
Gabelli analyst Jeff Jonas is bullish on CVS Caremark, which provides pharmacy benefit management services as well as operating more than 7,000 drugstores, because he believes the company has good cash flow and that the Caremark portion of the business has had an "amazing number of contract wins."
The company has consistently beaten the market's earnings expectations this year, and the shares have outperformed the broad market, gaining 18% vs. a marginal increase for the S&P 500. The stock now trades at a forward price-to-earnings multiple of 12.7X, and is finishing 2011 strong, hitting its 52-week high of $41.30 on Tuesday.
CVS Caremark is scheduled to report its fiscal fourth-quarter results on Feb. 8, and the average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for a profit of 89 cents a share in the latest three months on revenue of $28.05 billion.
TheStreet Ratings has an A grade for CVS rating the stock as a buy with a price target of $48.96.
WellPoint is also a popular pick for 2012 with 18 of the 24 analysts covering the stock at either strong buy (9) or buy (9), and the median 12-month price target sitting at $87 vs. Tuesday's close at $67.93.
Caroll of Stifel Nicolaus also likes WellPoint, which he sees as a pure play on the insurance space. He's expecting the company to generate earnings of close to $8 per share next year. The current average analysts' estimate is at $7.75, giving the stock a relatively cheap forward price-to-earnings multiple of less than 9X at present levels.
Though Carroll recommends WellPoint, he noted that investors should be aware the company is more exposed to health care reform than some of its peers. His price target for the shares is $90.
The stock has gained 19 percent in 2011, and the Indianapolis-based health care benefits provider is tentatively expected to report its fiscal fourth-quarter results on Jan. 25 with Wall Street expecting earnings of $1.11 a share in the December quarter on revenue of $15.38 billion.
TheStreet Ratings gives WellPoint a B grade with a buy rating and a $64.50 price target.
Additional News: Supreme Court to Hear Health-Care Case
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