UPDATE 2-Humana profit tops estimates on Medicare Advantage strength

(Adds forecast, analyst comment)

Nov 8 (Reuters) - Health insurer Humana Inc topped Wall Street targets for third-quarter profit and lifted its annual earnings forecast, as it sold thousands more of its Medicare Advantage plans to the elderly and the disabled.

The Louisville, Kentucky company on Wednesday also said it cut its workforce by about 2,700 employees or 5.7 percent as it began voluntary early retirement and workforce reduction programs in the third quarter.

Humana raised its forecast for 2017 adjusted earnings to about $11.60 per share from $11.50. It said individual Medicare Advantage membership reached 2.85 million by the end of September, up 1 percent from a year ago.

Medicare Advantage, an alternative to the standard fee-for-service Medicare in which private insurers manage health benefits, is the fastest growing form of government healthcare and accounts for about a third of all Medicare members.

Humana's consolidated benefit ratio - the percentage of premiums spent on claims - rose slightly to 82.1 percent from 81.5 percent a year ago.

The company has said it will exit its Obamacare business next year, joining other large health insurers such as UnitedHealth Group.

"We see initial signs of strength for 2018 in both the savings from the workforce reduction program and comments on taking the profits above expectations in 2017 and re-investing them in the 2018 product offering," Piper Jaffray analyst Sarah James said.

Humana's net profit rose 11 percent to $499 million or $3.44 per share in the quarter ended Sept. 30. Excluding one-time items, the company earned $3.39 per share, topping analysts' average estimate of $3.27, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue fell 3 percent to $13.28 billion.

Shares of the company rose 1 percent to $259 in premarket trading on Wednesday. (Reporting by Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Sai Sachin Ravikumar)