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UnitedHealth earnings: Three things to watch

UnitedHealth office
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
UnitedHealth office

As the nation's largest health insurer, UnitedHealth Group's earnings traditionally serve as an industry bellwether, but these days the insurance giant is also an outlier because its biggest insurance rivals are mired in antitrust issues.

With no merger-related headwinds, UnitedHealth's shares are up nearly 14 percent year to date, outperforming the health care sector, which is down nearly 4 percent for the year. By contrast, shares of Aetna are flat on the year, while its merger partner Humana's stock is down nearly 9 percent. Anthem and Cigna have also seen regulatory opposition to their proposed deal, also weighing on their stocks, which both are seeing a double-digit decline year to date.

Analysts are looking for UnitedHealth to report adjusted earnings of $2.08 per share for its third quarter on revenue of $46.1 billion, according to Thomson Reuters.

The insurer raised the lower end of its full year 2016 earnings guidance in July to $7.80 to $7.95 per share, from $7.75 to $7.95 per share.

Here's what to watch:

Health-care costs

UnitedHealth said medical cost growth was manageable in the first two quarters of the year, beyond the costs associated with its money-losing Obamacare plans.

Its medical loss ratio — the percentage of premiums paid in medical claims — edged up to 82 percent in the second quarter. Two of the areas where costs had picked up were emergency-room utilization and specialty pharmacy prices.

The analysts estimate for UnitedHealth's third quarter MLR is 81.1 percent.

The company reports the same morning that the government releases its latest consumer price index data, which of late has shown increased consumer spending on health care.

Obamacare losses

UnitedHealth has been a bellwether on Obamacare plans this year. In April, it announced it would drop out of all but a handful of Affordable Care Act exchanges for 2017, citing larger-than-expected medical costs associated with ACA plans. By late summer, many of its rivals followed suit.

In the second quarter, the insurer estimated full year losses on Obamacare plans would top $650 million in 2016. Any increase in that guidance will likely have a negative read-through for its largest ACA exchange rivals, Anthem, Cigna, Aetna and Centene.

UnitedHealth generally does not provide forecasts for the following year until its analyst day in December, but analysts expect that dropping Obamacare plans will provide a tailwind to the bottom line in 2017.


Optum growth

While UnitedHealth's Medicare and Medicare businesses are producing growth in its insurance membership, it is the Optum division that has been the biggest driver of overall growth.

In both the first and second quarters, Optum revenue grew more than 50 percent year over year, driven by growth of nearly 70 percent in the OptumRx pharmacy benefit management unit.

However, the PBM business is now under scrutiny, in light of rising drug costs. This month, some UnitedHealth members filed a lawsuit accusing the insurance giant of setting high co-pays for drugs, which had been bought cheaply through its PBM, in order pocket higher profits.

UnitedHealth reports third-quarter results Tuesday morning, and has scheduled a conference call to discuss results starting at 8:45 a.m. ET.